Sophie Karthäuser, soprano
Stephan Loges, bass-baritone
Eugene Asti, piano
James Way, tenor
Natalie Burch, piano
The great accompanist Gerald Moore was fond of recounting the moment when, in a recital as a young pianist early in his career, he was accompanying a famous singer. Just as he was about to start playing the introduction to one of the Lieder, she turned to him and whispered: “Not too loud!” Made even more nervous by the unexpected intervention, he nonetheless prepared, again, to open the recital, when she turned back to him, whispering: “But not too soft!”
If that is the accompanist’s eternal dilemma, the two pianists at the Oxford Lieder Festival’s Schumanniade were more than equal to the challenge. Natalie Burch opened the recital with tenor James Way, both among the Festival’s Emerging Artists, and showed immediately her mastery of the expressive range demanded by the three Schubert songs, not least in the extended Laura am Klavier, from where thunder, foaming torrents, and “wooing breezes” all emanated, and in the coda at the end of a song in which Schiller’s text encompasses life and death, nature and music, chaos and creation, all reflected vividly in Burch’s playing. Her sensitive inner melodies were the perfect foil for the velvet tone of James Way which was wrapped warmly around the complex poetry of Laura. Way has the intuitive gift of transfixing an audience, such is the hypnotic power of his facial expression, for example when the poet begs the maiden to tell him if she is in league with divine spirits. More intimate but just as convincing were Way’s affectionate addresses to the zither in Mozart’s Komm, lieber Zither, komm and, earnestly pleading, to the piano (“What heavenly peace you whisper to me!”) in An mein Klavier. Here are two artists from whom we hope to hear much more in the future.
Eugene Asti took over at the keyboard for the rest of the recital. Here too, his subtle shifts of tone provided the perfect aural environment for the demanding if melancholic programme that was to follow. Already in Schumann’s Warnung, the intensity of his chords, the ominous, creeping melodies, the emphatic reflection of death itself to the words Du singst dich in den Tod!: all this was a foretaste of Asti’s meticulous reading of the score and understanding of the text. Mood was everything in this recital, and Asti enabled the singers to create it consistently, whether in his dreamy, perfectly weighted coda to Schumann’s Gute Nacht, die ich dir sage, his majestic accompaniment to Stirb’, Lieb’ und Freud’! or that desperately sad last note of Alte Laute (Sounds from the past).
The title of this recital was neatly borrowed from the social, musical evenings at home that Schubert frequently organised for his friends (Schubertiaden). Here at SJE, the cast gathering around Schumann included Schubert and Mozart, but also his wife Clara, whose settings of texts of the romantic era treated its familiar, often gloomy themes of the forest, nature, love and death. Soprano Sophie Karthäuser and bass-baritone Stephan Loges were thoroughly convincing as narrators or protagonists, whether individually or, as in Clara’s overwhelmingly sad Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage, as a duet. Here, in this intimate song of farewell, they turned what could have been simply an innocent “good night” into a deeply moving prayer at the final parting of approaching death, after their melting idyll of togetherness: Jetzt gute Nacht.
Sophie Karthäuser brought an ethereal beauty to her singing of O Jungfrau rein that captured delicately the words addressed to the Virgin Mary, as all earthly joy fled. One could almost sense the tears welling up inside her, as they undoubtedly were among many in the audience at that moment. The programme was half devoted to Schumann’s setting of twelve poems (1834) by Justinus Kerner, described in Natasha Loges’ informative programme notes as “lyrics with a popular melancholic-rapturous tone”. So it was fitting that the highlight of Karthäuser’s contribution was Stille Liebe. She began gently, in the first of three short stanzas, with a portrait of the naïve lover in praise mode, willing us through her, yes, rapturous singing to understand the loveliness of love itself. By the end, her tone had become unutterably sad, beyond melancholy, as Karthäuser’s poet realised the futility of it all. The ominous Doch… (Yet…) in the second stanza, and even more her soaring, anguished cry of Herzgeliebte, led on finally to the agony and loneliness of the poet’s inability to convey the love he felt. This was quintessential Liedersinging.
Stephan Loges showed at once his genius for communicating emotionally with an audience, yet always at the service of the music and its poetry and never with any hint of melodrama or excess. In the opening Die Hütte, his clear diction and relaxed, deceptively simple narrative style were brought to life by the warmth of his rich tone. By contrast, his Wanderlied conveyed the energy and eagerness of youth, becoming poignantly pensive when love enables the wanderer to feel at home in the most distant land. This notable ability to convey rapidly conflicting emotions was almost a leitmotif running through Loges’ choice of songs, from his high monotone of the midnight hour and the sudden mood change at “Empty is the glass!” at the end of the hymn-like Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes, to his bitter, accusatory, desperation at the illness of the poet’s beloved in Wer machte dich so krank?
A Schumanniade with these five great musicians might have left us in perhaps less buoyant spirits than a jolly evening’s Schubertiade, and quite right too. This was, after all, a recital of music intensely focused on the essential priorities of the romantic era (and not least of Robert and Clara Schumann themselves), and it came from the heart.