Poise, control, stillness. Within two minutes of her Wigmore Hall debut, the qualities that make Elīna Garanča a consummate Lieder recitalist were evident. The Latvian mezzo is no scenery-chewing diva – admittedly, Brahms affords little opportunity for this – but a sense of repressed passion simmering beneath her cool exterior was palpable. Partnered by evergreen pianist Roger Vignoles, belying his 70 years and stepping in to this recital at short notice, Garanča treated us to a delectable programme of 14 Brahms’ Lieder balanced in the second half by Duparc and Rachmaninov.

Elīna Garanča at Wigmore Hall © Simon Jay Price
Elīna Garanča at Wigmore Hall
© Simon Jay Price
Debutants, particularly those more used to the operatic stage, can often over-sing at first in Wigmore Hall. Garanča is much too skilled to fall into that trap. Instead, she scaled back her rich, velvety smooth mezzo – with just a flash of silver at the top – to perfect proportions. She eventually reached operatic heights in the climax to Von ewiger Liebe, cannily placed as the final Brahms’ song before the interval, but most of the first half was marked by her exceptional control. Garanča uses very little vibrato, producing a remarkably clean tone. Her ‘veiled’ sound in Sapphische Ode was gorgeous, as was the beautifully measured pent-up emotion in Mädchenlied.  Even Verzagen (Despair) found her gliding serenely over the turbulent piano part.

In a pale green gown, performing without scores, Garanča appeared entirely focused, proceeding in business-like manner from one Brahms Lied to the next with just a single break for applause. Everything about her stage manner exuded control, from the very deliberate, light placement of her palms on the piano lid to arms enfolding her slender frame at the end of Ruhe, Süßliebchen: a picture of stillness as the poet rocks her lover to sleep in “the whispering grove”. Vignoles’ contributions were wholly admirable, from the tender rocking piano in Wir wandelten to the wistful sighs in O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück

Post-interval, a change of gown found Duparc and Rachmaninov wrapped up for Garanča’s Christmas audience, a scarlet bow tied around her waist. Duparc’s oeuvre extended to a mere 17 songs before illness caused him to give up his compositional career. Here, we were presented with three gems. Au pays où se fait la guerre, set to Théophile Gautier, finds the châtelaine awaiting her lover’s return from battle. Here, and in Phidylé, Garanča was more dramatic in her delivery, unleashing great vocal power. Between them nestled Extase, sung with heart-stopping, breath-catching tenderness.

Russian song repertoire is a melancholy affair, full of nocturnal musing, loneliness, and fruitless waiting for lovers to return. I adore it and could happily gobble down entire programmes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, both of whom did it better than most. Here, Garanča offered a handful by Rachmaninov, including Lilacs and my absolute favourite, the sumptuous Sing not to me, beautiful maiden, wonderfully delivered and ending in perfect stillness. Her voice may at times lack a little “dirt” for this Russian repertoire and she doesn’t always move me the way other singers can, but I can think of few instruments that are as finely sculpted and as beautiful to listen to as Garanča’s mezzo, ably demonstrated in her balmy second encore, Strauss’ Morgen. A treat. 

****1