At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series. The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde. Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.
A beautiful Namenstaglied D695 (1820), where the lines rock gently, almost more lullaby than Lied. it was written for one of Schubert's friends, Josefine Koller, who wanted to sing it to please her father. Not many singers can do artistry without artifice, but that genuine sincerity is one of Angelika Kirchschlager's great strengths. She can create youthful freshness like no-one else with the agility and purity of her timbre, yet can also warm that sweetness with a promise of innocent sensuality. In the context of those times, it was accepted that child-like beauties would grow into women, hopefully fulfilled by love. In reality, of course, things don't always work out right, so even happy Lieder can be haunted by a sense of unease. Thus Frühlingsglaube D686b (!820, Johann Ludwig Uhland) All things change, but, importantly, "Das Blühen will nicht enden". So have faith in Spring, for change is also endless renewal. In Geheimes D719 (1821, Goethe), a young person learns that love isn't easy, but in Im Frühling D882 (1826) the artist yet again finds solace in hope. Ironically, that song sets a text by Erst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817) whose obsessive love for two sisters wasn't romantic, as the love existed only in his mind. Bei dir allein ! D866 (?1828, Seidl), Lambertine D301 (1815 anon) and Am Bach im Frühling D361 (?1816, Franz von Schober) combined well, as did the next set Ganymed D544 (1817, Goethe), Wiegenlied D489 (1816 anon). But with In der Mitternacht D464 (1816 Johan Georg Jacobi), a sense of doom intrudes, preparing us for Erlkönig D328 (1815, Goethe) that masterpiece of Gothic horror. Since it sits fairly low, it's usually the preserve of male voices. Kirschschlager, however, made it work, since, for a change, we could hear it from the perspective of the terrified child.
Schubert himself blossomed early, reaching peaks early in his youth, dying before autumn set in. Gesang der Norna D832 (1825, Walter Scott) and Romanze zum Drama Rosamunde D797/3b (1823 Helmina von Chézy) connected to other genres Schubert was interested in, followed by more classic Lieder. Songs like Suleika I D720 (1821 Goethe) and Suleika II D717 (1821 Goethe) are Kirchschlager specialities, which suit her ability to create girlish charm tinged with tragedy. Her self confidence renewed, she sang with the warmth and sincerity that is her forte. Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday concerts are far too high profile to cancel unless you're in extremis, which Kirchschlager was not. But Wigmore Hall audiences know Kirchschlager so well, and have heard her so often over the years, that we appreciate what she does. Singers are not machines. We understand the Liederabend ethos. Singers are singers, not machines. In Schubert's time, people didn't demand CD perfection, they cared about the singers as human beings. It's the Liederabend ethos. Kirchschlager and Drake rewarded us with classics like An den Mond D259 (1815 Goethe), Der Jüngling an der Quelle D300 (?1815 Johan Gaudenz von Salus-Seewiss), and Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826 Seidl).
Finding joy in art, Schubert seems to have made light of his troubles, but we cannot help but ponder what might have been in his soul. Listening to Der Unlückliche D 713 (1821 Karoline Pichler) we can perhaps glimpse intimations of something beyond conventional Romantic morbidity. Yet the song responds to gloom by speeding up and pushing forwards: "Du hast geliebt", and later "Zerrissen sind nun alle süssen Bande". At moments, Drake's pounding forcefulness serves good purpose. In Lied des Florio D857/2 (!825, Christian Wilhelm von Schütz), we return to calm, "erst mit Tönen sanft wie Flöten". But this sleep is poisoned. Here Kirchschlager was at her peak again, with beautiful timbre and phrasing. The recital ended with Abschied von der Erde D829 (1826) The text comes from a play, Der Falke, written by teenage poet Adolf von Pratobvera von Weisborn as a gift to his father. Strictly speaking it is not a Lied at all. The voice part is declamed, not sung, against a piano backdrop. As the last song in the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series, it's an extraordinarily moving moment. We remember that Schubert died in his prime, his voice silenced before its time, the piano lingering to remind us of its loss.
This review also appears in Opera Today