Voices of our Time - Barbara Bonney
‘Voices of our time’, the series title, may lead to some expectation that these will be in the form of a ‘portrait of the artist’. Each is in fact based upon a particular recital at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, its items interspersed with comments by the singer and pianist concerned. And they talk, for the most part, about the programme and not about themselves.
The format is a good one. Barbara Bonney explains why she thinks the Dichterliebe cycle should not be regarded as a male preserve, and adds a note on her concept of a Scandinavian counterpart for the programme’s second half. Felicity Lott credits Graham Johnson with the selection of songs, each by a different composer, for each hour of the night and day. Anne Sofie von Otter admits that when Korngold’s songs were introduced to her many years ago she was not attracted but has since changed her mind. Thomas Hampson speaks lovingly of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, lyrics as well as music – ‘a metaphor for the giving of the soul’. The pianists speak, too, often with rather more specific reference to facts and individual features. The comments are always well placed and almost always interesting. They are spoken informally, not read from a script, and they don’t outstay their welcome.
The Châtelet has clearly done well in the matter of song recitals in these first years of the new century. The four singers here are all in their prime: mature artists with the voice still in fine condition. Each is also working with a pianist in whom they have trust, with von Otter’s long association with Bengt Forsberg exceeded only by Lott’s with Johnson, which, as she tells us, goes back to student days. Theirs is the most varied and imaginatively constructed programme, the first three songs (one each in English, French and German) defining, as Johnson says, the parameters, within which the surprises are frequent and delightful – right up to a wonderland melding of Schubert and Cole Porter.
The surprise of Barbara Bonney’s recital is not so much the inherent one of hearing Dichterliebe sung by a woman (others have done that) as the concentration of dramatic force which she now summons up for certain songs or particular moments. The tearful awakening in ‘Ich habe in Traum geweinet’ is an example, as is (perhaps most impressively) Sibelius’s ‘Was it a dream?’ where the intensity of tone and emotion recalls Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in that song.
The two other recitals are each devoted to a single composer. The Korngold programme is divided between songs and instrumental music, so that it is the pianist, rather than the singer, who is at the centre throughout. Forsberg, whom I’ve sometimes thought too assertive in song recitals, is here totally admirable. The major works (Op 15 and 23) make a strong appeal, despite their fragmen-tation in the ordering of the movements (presumably for the video). He plays with rare delicacy of touch and coloration in the dreamlike In meine innige Nacht, where Von Otter sings with the humanising caress of portamento. They finish with an arrangement of Marietta’s song in Die tote Stadt arranged for von Otter and the ensemble. It’s what, I suppose, we’ve been looking for all the way through, yet now, when it comes as an expected fulfillment, it brings a somewhat limp pleasure, and, in this arrangement and out of context, yes, this does outstay its welcome.
Of Korngold, Forsberg quoted a wag who placed him ‘between Mahler and Errol Flynn’, whatever that may mean. As soon as the first notes of Des Knaben Wunderhorn are heard in the recital by Hampson and Wolfram Rieger we know that if genius is indeed (as they say) the word for Korngold, our vocabulary is deprived of one that will do justice to Mahler himself. Both singer and pianist are passionate advocates, and indeed at least three of the songs – ‘Revelge’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ and ‘Urlicht’ – find their greatness fully realised here. This is the concert I would most like to have been present at. Mind, to be in that lovely theatre is itself a privilege, and any of these four events would have been memorable. They are well filmed, with skilfully unobtrusive camera-work; the texts are only available on screen, but each booklet has an intelligent and substantial introductory essay by Boris Kehrmann.