An alumna of both the Salzburg Mozarteum and London's Royal Academy of Music, Christina Gansch rose to prominence last year as the winner of the 2014 Kathleen Ferrier Award. Her winner's recital at St John's Smith Square saw her joined by the peerless Malcolm Martineau in a programme of Mozart, Mahler, Wolf, Strauss and, curiously, Roger Quilter. A small observation: when the Quilter is the most moving thing on the programme, above the titans musical and poetic of German Romanticism, there is surely a rethink to be had. This was a programme of trifles, only a couple of these songs with any emotional heft, and Gansch tended to elide the differences in character between the serious and light music, meaning the sublime moments were sometimes rather hollow.

Christina Gansch © Askonas Holt
Christina Gansch
© Askonas Holt

None of this is to say that she doesn't have a beautiful voice – she really does. Although young, she has a beautiful high range and flashes of stunning beauty, with depth and tone far beyond her years. This first appeared in Mozart's setting of Goethe, Das Veilchen, and Campe's Abendempfindung (Evening Thoughts), where the final stanzas glowed like the setting sun. This depth was key to those moments of rare introspection that really did come off, as in Mahler's Leander setting Erinnerung, a sad musing on the loneliness of the artist. The final stanza “So both hold me captive/Again and again:/Songs inspire love,/Love inspires songs!” was heartbreaking, and left me wishing I could have heard more of Gansch in this music. The second stanza's pianissimos were perfectly judged, the song's more symphonic mood drawing out some true drama from Gansch, whose third-stanza high notes really told. Some praise is surely due to St John's Smith Square, whose open, clear acoustic is surprisingly effective in this highly intimate music. Both parts were effective and came across well, without any part of either party's contribution being noticeably attenuated.

Of course, too much richness throughout the recital would come across as overbearing, and at the lighter end of the art song spectrum, Gansch does extremely well, with a manner well-suited, perhaps, to opera. Certainly, the fun and games of the five songs from Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch were met with enthusiasm from both performers. Martineau was clearly having fun, and Gansch's gestures and acting enlivened the unchallenging language of these little numbers. Even when it went a little too far, as in Ich hab in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen, a patter-song in all but name; Gansch's motions got rather in her way, and both notes and patter were a little unclear. Her stylistic heartland became apparent in an aria from Un ballo in maschera, a cheeky and confidently delivered showpiece for those wonderful high notes. There was a lot of comedy in this recital too, Martineau in particular sharing some knowing glances with the audience for the sillier, more playful endings to songs.

To repeat myself, however, too much of anything can become wearing. Sweetness and light are well and good, but for the bulk of this recital, there was simply too little characterisation, too little edge. There is a surfeit of German poetry suffused in greenery, with shafts of light breaking nostalgically through linden trees; it’s not that this is a problem, it is only that it takes real effort to stop one song blending into the next. Gansch has a habit of letting some voix naturelle into her sound, a breathiness intended to give the poetry immediacy and rhetoric. A nice special effect the first time, in Das Veilchen, but special effects rapidly stop being special with excess repetition. It was particularly disappointing from a singer who clearly has such a huge emotional range in her voice to fall back on this so often. I craved the expressivity that was only hinted at in this recital, the character that lacked, as in Mahler’s quirky Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, with an opening that was nice enough, but not sufficiently völkisch, lacking that foot-stamping, rustic quality so important in Mahler. So with the impatient demand in Frühlingsmorgen to “Steh’ auf, Langschläfer, Steh auf!” It was well-sung, but that was all I could really say about it.

So it was with the recital as a whole, really. There are bags of potential in this young singer, and those flashes I mentioned really were flashes of utter brilliance. This was clearly a showcase recital, but I never felt wowed by Gansch; she never looked once at Martineau mid-song, and the communication appeared to come entirely from his end. Lovely music, lovely singing, lovely poetry… there must be something more than ‘lovely’ in performances of the highest level, though. This needed more joy in the words, more engagement, more drama; Gansch will be one to watch over the years., but the greatest singers need more than ‘lovely’ in their repertoire.

***11