Saturday, 9 November 2013

Song recital: Verdi and Wagner

Hall of St Botolph without Bishopsgate
7 November 2013

Angela Gheorghiu singing Verdi's uncharacteristically light-hearted Stornello. From here

Minor works by great composers presented brilliantly. More, please.

This is the first of two extremely enterprising – and free! – lunchtime song recitals from Song in the City dedicated to these great musical dramatists, both born 200 years ago.

Focussing on their songs, rather than aria arrangements, displays integrity but also presents problems. Neither composer is at his best in the song form, which is more peculiar for Verdi than Wagner, whose orchestral mastery is a greater part of his appeal.

The theme of this concert was love and/or obsession, and stressed the similarities of these contemporaries. A series of dramatised readings from their letters helped, interspersed with the songs. In these readings, both composers emerged as an intense Romantic, with Wagner prone to poetic excess and Verdi crustier but still passionate.

Confirming that in their early years, neither had a distinctive voice, the songs were similar in verse and musical setting.

The first two songs even had the same verse, from Goethe’s Faust, Part One, Gretchen’s spinning song, set most memorably by the young Schubert, and perhaps set most effectively by Carl Loewe. Against such competition neither opera composer comes out well.

If this were a competition, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Verdi comes off worst, for Wagner wrote the Wesendonck Lieder at a point where he had achieved miracles within opera, far beyond Verdi’s ambition. Verdi’s songs, and most of Wagner's, are much earlier.

Surprisingly, the gap between the songs of the young-ish Verdi and the fully mature Wagner are not as great as we might think. Although the selections of those Wesendonck lieder heard here were definitely the highlights, the Italian’s similarly evocative settings around night or longing were also very effective.

We're used to hearing the Wesendonck songs in their orchestral versions, mostly by Mottl, but employing Wagner's advances in orchestration. The piano-accompanied originals, then, are not as interesting, at least on this showing.

Ironically, the concert ended with a song that pianist and director Gavin Roberts called an Italian approach to love, rather than the heavy ‘Wagnerian’ themes that had gone before. Ironic, because both composers were extremely high-minded, and if anything Verdi was temperamentally more serious than Wagner. That he also managed a soubrettish song says less about him being Italian and more about his interest in depicting a wide range of types of people.

The performances, in this small pretty hall, were uniformly excellent, singers admirably scaling down to meet the acoustics.

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