Midway through the second half of this poised, polished recital something clicked. It was palpable, even audible. The evening, though never less than a pleasure, grew into something unforgettable when Elīna Garanča and pianist Malcolm Martineau eased their way into Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. In that moment a new intensity took hold and all was beauty and contemplation, heart and spirit. ‘Transcendent’ is an overused word but it belongs here.

Elīna Garanča © Holger Hage | DG
Elīna Garanča
© Holger Hage | DG

With a voice of crushed velvet the Latvian mezzo-soprano gave a performance of those five familiar songs that probed the poet’s emotional complexities from deep within and held a sold-out Wigmore Hall spellbound. Um Mitternacht, placed third, emerged as the fearful confession of a vulnerable soul; Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, which closed the programme, lent an overwhelming sense of completeness, of life coming full circle. After it the singer’s encore, a Latvian bonbon, felt like an intrusion on private meditation.

Garanča became unwell shortly before Christmas and was obliged to withdraw from Les Troyens at the Opéra de Paris, so it was a joy to hear her restored not just to health but to her full vocal splendour. The five Myrthen songs of Schumann with which she opened her recital revealed a sumptuous timbre and admirable control of her instrument: soprano-bright at the top, powerful and rich in the lower register and a privilege to hear across the full range. If she was more imperious than impetuous as the young bride in Lied der Braut I & II, at least Martineau caught the music’s guileless quality in his fresh, generous interpretation.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben was a disappointment. As a traversal of one woman’s experience of life’s rich tapestry it sounded beautiful, and Martineau’s pianism continued to be superbly expressive, but only in the songs of the woman’s maturity did Garanča seem alive to meaning. I missed the dancing eyes of a smitten lover in Er, der Herrlichste von allen, while in her rendition of Ich kann’s nicht fassen it was hard to fathom the character’s emotional state. A lack of ambivalence in Helft mir, ihr Schwestern and an absence of intimacy of Süsser Freund, du blickest made the songs feel unlived-in.

Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder have become so familiar in the orchestration by Felix Mottl that on occasion the composer’s original version for voice and piano can sound undernourished. Martineau’s brisk tempi and Garanča’s glowing delivery obviated any such risk here, although the mezzo occasionally pushed into unwarranted fortissimo on high notes (e.g. in Schmerzen). The two ‘Tristan studies’ fared best: Im Treibus suited Garanča’s voice and made one wish that Isolde sat within her range, while Träume, the most gloriously evocative of the songs, shone with a moon-like beauty that was refulgent but cool.

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