After the disappointment of losing Alice Coote through illness (and thus also Julius Drake), came the mouth-watering prospect of Anne Schwanewilms and Malcolm Martineau as their replacements. And yet Monday’s lunchtime chamber music Prom at Cadogan Hall didn’t quite deliver on all its promise.

Anne Schwanewilms © Javier del Real
Anne Schwanewilms
© Javier del Real

Perhaps this was down in part to the programme, which was mostly slow and dreamy. This meant that unfortunately the songs began to blur into one, in spite of wonderfully controlled performances from both Schwanewilms and Martineau. Or maybe the wonderful control was also part of the problem; for most of the concert Schwanewilms delivered a performance that was very internalised. Either way, I was unmoved by some of Richard Strauss’s finest love songs.

I also left unenamoured of Debussy’s Proses lyriques, though that was more down to the composer than the performance. Providing the lyrics as well as the music feels like it was a task too great for Debussy; neither are of the highest quality, although they have interesting moments. Schwanewilms and Martineau brought a warm clarity to the nocturnal feel of the four songs, although the third had some slight intonation problems nestled among its dark brilliance. However, Schwanewilms seemed very subdued; wrestling with French didn’t seem to agree with her. It was only in the last song, De soir, that Schwanewilms reached out to the audience, and even then, it was only briefly.

The second set continued the Proms theme of celebrating the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss, collecting together songs from 1885 to 1901. Schwanewilms, understandably, seemed more at home here, and yet maintained a slight distance from the audience. Traum durch die Dämmerung and Das Rosenband had the most warmth, and in the latter Martineau pleasingly brought out the Schubertian undertones. Geduld had a surprisingly Grieg-esque feel to it, again coming from Martineau, though Schwanewilms continued to be rather sedate. Again, it was only the last song, Ach was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen, that really came to life. The struggle of a young woman to contain her feelings for her lover was delivered with a delightfully humorous touch, before Schwanewilms threw open her arms at the end to give the game away.

If it feels ungenerous to be so critical of those stepping in at short notice, it was clear from the performance that Schwanewilms and Martineau are a very assured partnership. Technically I could find nothing to fault; they moved as one throughout. And yet, when a performance is so polished it leaves the listener free to focus on expression, nuance and colour. And here, there just wasn’t enough to pull me in. I am hugely envious of Schwanewilms’ control (there were some delicious high, floated pianissimo moments) and Martineau’s delicate playing, but I never got a sense of delving into any real emotion or drama particularly from the former. I longed for a change of mood over the hour too; some light to illuminate the shade. Both are clearly capable of so much more. This was a good concert; it wasn’t a great one.