Anne Schwanewilms is a German soprano, a star of the opera stage and a star of the recital stage—if anyone can be truly a star of the recital stage anymore. Yesterday afternoon, she appeared in recital at Alice Tully Hall, under the auspices of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers. At the piano was Malcolm Martineau, that ubiquitous accompanist—and he is ubiquitous for a reason: he is very good at it.
Their program was Strauss (Richard) and Wolf. Fifteen Strauss songs with a sprinkling of Mörike-Lieder, those songs by Wolf (setting poetry of Eduard Mörike). In a sense, I liked the recital before it began: because it would be a pleasure to hear all of those songs.
First on the program was Strauss’s “Traum durch die Dämmerung,” one of the best songs in the entire song repertoire. You can hear it in either a version with piano or a version with orchestra. The pianist, Martineau, started the song nicely. When it was her turn, Schwanewilms hesitated. There was a little hesitation before the beat on which she was to enter. I regard this as wrong, and annoyingly so. I think the voice should join a song that has already begun. Schwanewilms all but announced a beginning.
The rest of the song, she sang very freely, not to say waywardly. The song, frankly, was warped—bent out of shape. Also, Schwanewilms had a bit of trouble with pitch. And, on the last, sustained note, she stopped phonating (which is to say, making a sound).
Was she nervous? I don’t know. But, on the basis of the opening song, I thought we were in for a rough recital. Which turned out to be completely wrong. Schwanewilms soon righted herself, putting on a clinic of lieder-singing.
I will count a few of her virtues. She has a beautiful voice, and it has a nice weight to it: not light, not heavy. It seemed clear that she was using only part of all the voice she has—like a driver using only part of his engine, cruising along. Schwanewilms is an exceptionally good breather. Related to that, she is an exceptional producer of high pianos and pianissimos. Sitting in Alice Tully Hall yesterday afternoon, Caballé herself would have gone, “Whoa.”
Also, Schwanewilms sings a beautiful German. And she is a smart interpreter of songs.
After four from Strauss, it was three of Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder. I thought of something that Christa Ludwig told me, in an interview three years ago. The great German mezzo said, “If I was crying when I stopped singing”—that is, when she had to retire—“it was only because I could no longer sing Hugo Wolf. This is the high point of lieder-composing, for me.”
Anne Schwanewilms began with “Das verlassene Mägdlein”—and her first lines showed iron control. How she could sing so softly, and evenly, and intensely, amazed me. My diaphragm almost hurt. The rest of the song was equally mesmerizing.
So was the next one, “Wo find’ ich Trost.” It was practically a mini-opera, terrifying. And yet it was perfectly song-like, whatever its operatic touches. Schwanewilms seemed to be enjoying Wolf’s dissonances—without making too much of them, which is key.
Then it was three more Strauss songs, ending with a folky-jokey one: “Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen.” Schwanewilms was absolutely charming in it—charming and delicious without being hammy. This is a demonstration, however small, of artistic taste.
I was much looking forward to the second half of the program—more Strauss and Wolf—but, alas, had to scoot. I did so, however, with appreciation of the example that Schwanewilms had set. The Lincoln Center series has a somewhat boastful, somewhat risky, somewhat silly name: “Great Performers.” Some are great, sure, and some are good, if you’re lucky. But, in several of those songs, Anne Schwanewilms had shown us first-rate lieder-singing. Even great.