In a world of people writing cheques they cannot cash, Elīna Garanča is a breath of fresh air. Polished, prepared, professional – there is nothing out of place with this resplendent mezzo. Fresh off a run as Octavian in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Garanča proved once again in her Liederabend on Wednesday night at the Haus am Ring that she has it all. In a very well-considered programme, the Latvian mezzo brought down the house, closely supported by pianist Malcolm Martineau.

Elīna Garanča © Paul Schirnhofer | DG
Elīna Garanča
© Paul Schirnhofer | DG

It already speaks volume for the class of an opera star when she can sell out the Staatsoper on a weeknight with a song programme. The hall was full; standing-room overfilled, and as Garanča took the stage in a floor-length, navy gown alongside Martineau, veteran to the divas, the applause was more than simply polite.

Instead of taking time to ease into things, throwing off a hit or two, even maybe singing an aria, the duo got down to serious business and laid out a challenging set of 14 Brahms songs which comprised the first half of the evening. Brahms wrote songs throughout his compositional lifetime, some now well-known and others more obscure. Garanča and Martineau opened with an early setting Liebestreu Op.3/1, written shortly after Brahms’ 21st birthday, then gave a choice offering of relative hits, including his Op.94/4 Sapphische Ode, Oh wüsst’ ich doch den Weg zurück Op.63/8 and Op.43/1 Von ewiger Liebe as well as rather obscure jewels such as the late, great Mädchenlied Op.107/5 and one of my particular favorites, Verzagen Op.72/4.

Throughout the set, Garanča was alluring. Her lower register, warm and enveloping, served her beautifully; she was poised, polished and no tone was less than lovely. Martineau wore her voice like a glove, and the ensemble left nothing to be desired. Though occasionally I would have loved a bit more heft for Brahms, the performance from both was spotless. Garanča is clearly primarily an opera singers: her text is clean and diction is good, but there is always still room for improvement. Her focus is still very much on line and sound, not as strongly on text and poetry, but there is no shortage of innate musicality in this artist, and she and Martineau both did some wonderful text-painting. One felt the longing in O wüsst’ ich doch… on the phrase “zum zweites Mal ein Kind!” The sun shone in O liebliche Wangen with mention of the “Schönste der Schönen!”, Wir wandelten was a study in line, and Geheimnis had some absolute pearls in the piano part.

As is often the case, the true strength of the evening lay after the interval. The duo opened with a set of three songs from Henri Duparc, Au pays ou se fait la guerre, Extase and Phidyle. Duparc’s work, more impassioned and balladic in nature lent themselves even better to Garanča. Now clad in a latte-coloured gown, she opened up and relaxed into the haunting music of the French master. “Son retour” in Au pays was given new meaning with every repetition, and the phrase “D'un sommeil doux comme la mort” in Extase was absolutely stunning. Thereafter followed a set of nine songs by Rachmaninov. The Russian suited Garanča perfectly in terms of colour and temperament. Highlights included The Soldier’s Wife Op.8/4 and the well-known Sing not to me, beautiful maiden, Op.4/4 where the mezzo’s characteristic stoicism were particularly effective and appropriate.

In short, this was a recital which was practically perfect in every way, and that is exactly the point that could have elevated this evening into another level for me. I love how mature, musical, polished and perfect Garanca and Martineau were, but found myself dying for a bit of risk-taking. Perhaps it’s just Viennese “Schadenfreude”, but even if a tone goes south or for a moment falls flat, there is something incredibly gripping and exciting about the risk and the experiment. That would be my only tiny critique in a sea of positives: I was repeatedly gripped by the desire to see both of them push the envelope during this concert; give more bass, surprise one another with a new turn of phrase, maybe even make an unconventional sound…

Regardless, the audience wanted for nothing. The duo were pulled to the stage for three encores: Brahms’ Junge Liebe, a Latvian song – if I understood correctly a number by Jāzeps Vītols – and Strauss’ Morgen. The applause followed them long into the night.

****1