Two of the world’s most sought-after opera singers giving Lieder recitals on the same night. The kind of painful choice which Viennese musical institutions and their chaotic schedules throw up all too regularly. I went for Nina Stemme over Jonas Kaufmann on the basis that she gives fewer solo recitals, despite harbouring reservations about how her big voice would fare in this repertoire. Her long, expressive phrases and perceptive grasp of musical line dispelled many of those doubts, but the size of her instrument – Stemme made her name with big Wagner and Strauss roles – overwhelmed a few items on the programme.

Nina Stemme, © Tanja Niemann
Nina Stemme,
© Tanja Niemann

Stemme was at her most lyrical in the Rachmaninov songs, dialling down the intensity but still singing with plenty of richness. She spun some captivating phrases and sang in what sounded like very convincing Russian. Top notes were pure and her luxurious middle voice wasn’t laced with quite so much vibrato. Her few forceful moments were carefully distributed and stood out effectively: focusing the tone on the final note of the last song (‘Vesenniye vodï’) cast uncertainty over the regenerative properties of the spring waters the text describes. I was reminded of Rachmaninov’s piano arrangement of ‘Wohin’ from Die schöne Müllerin, and its pointed colouring of Schubert’s brook, suggesting something more ambiguous than a benign babbling presence. Stemme also put the melancholy of the other songs under scrutiny, in a string of cool readings.

The Schumann was less successful, sung with full-on dramatic heft that wouldn’t have suited the composer’s one operatic effort, let alone these late Lenau songs. Their elusiveness and introspection reminiscent of the Eichendorff Liederkreis, these songs also share a complex key scheme and tonal open-endedness which Stemme did well to emphasize without undermining the music’s coherence. But volume remained too loud and unvarying throughout, spoiling some careful phrasing.

The Weill, again, sounded quite unlike Weill: Stemme gave two of his rarely performed French songs the uninhibited classic chanson treatment, singing mournfully and wringing every drop of melancholy and sentiment from the text – and all the time sounding unusually refined. Normally it’s hard to forget Dudley Moore’s wicked lampooning of Weill’s famous torch song ‘Surabaya Johnny‘, but Stemme sounded so urgent and raw, singing of betrayal and mistreatment with wounded passion, that the parody never crossed my mind.

Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder was, as expected, the vocal highlight of the evening. Isolde and the tenderness of Tristan’s Act II love duet was never far away, the brief chromatic A flat breakthrough in ‘Im Treibhaus’ notwithstanding, which came straight out of the ‘Liebestod’, and moments in ‘Stehe still!’ which looked forward to the Brünnhilde of Siegfried. The strength and opulence of Stemme’s voice never seemed out of place here, though Matti Hirvonen’s lumpy playing, possible to disregard in the Schumann, was overly distracting. Stemme’s firmness was countered with desensitized hammering and voice leading was bumpy and highly idiosyncratic. A shame that phrases of consummate Wagnerian length were not better supported.