At first, Steinberger didn't do herself justice. Something clearly was wrong, as her chest sounded tight and congested, though there were many fine moments, indicating what she was really capable of, like a hauntingly well-nuanced "Alleluja" at the end of Die junge Nonne D828. Subtle is a better marker of good singing than brash and belting. Apparently Steinberger had a severe vocal infection but didn't cancel, knowing how important this first concert in the Oxford Lieder Festival can be. Good singers are conscientious, and know when they're not at their best, which adds to nerves and tension. That's no demerit at all. Sensitivity is by far more important in an artist (and in life in general).
Listening to Steinberger overcome her problems was in itself an education in how song partnerships work. (Masterclass participants, take note). Graham Johnson is a perfect song pianist because he is sensitive too, supporting and enhancing the singer, playing eloquently so some of the pressure is deflected. The act of singing can loosen things up, and experience brings confidence. What a transformation after the interval!
Steinberger was now in her true, vivacious element. Her Das Lied im Grünen D917 sparkled, her voice fresh and clear. There's more to this song than the joys of the countryside. Phrases repeat, but each time with a new twist. Spring symbolizes renewal and rebirth. ".....so haben Wir klüglich die grünende Zeit nicht versäumt, Und wann es gegolten, doch glücklich geträumt, Im Grünen, im Grünen." Here it sounded truly heartfelt.
Reinvigorated, Steinberger was able to bring out the cheerful, erotic kick in three relatively little known Schubert songs, Das Echo D990c, Heimliches Lieben D922 and Lied der Anna Lyle D830. The word "Küsse!" is invested with such luscious charm that there's no mistaking that the maiden knew full well that the kiss was real, not an echo across a valley. Good programme planning again (Graham Johnson?). Der Winterabend D938 followed the three sensuous frolics, injecting a note of winter and lost love, which deepened the mood before the magnificent climax of the evening, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D965. (Please read my analysis of Der Winterabend HERE)
The painting is Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902) a Polish academician much given to depictions of the Holy Land, Middle Eastern cultures and heroic myth. Perhaps Szymanowski knew this picture, for it expresses the anarchic sensuality of the Shepherd in Krol Roger.