Last Friday Luca Pisaroni kicked off his Lieder recital tour at the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ in Amsterdam, before leaving for North America. It was a versatile, beautifully sung exploration of the Lied’s maturation process, from Mozart to Schubert.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

The Italian bass-baritone initially sounded a little constrained, needing to loosen his voice on the first two charming Mozart songs. A slight grind in the lower range soon disappeared, and the voice poured freely in the touching declaration of love, “An Chloe”. For Mozart, writing songs was little more than musical doodling, which did not prevent him from producing absolute gems such as “Abendempfindung” (Evening Sensations). Mr Pisaroni’s satin-voiced rendition of this bittersweet contemplation on the brevity of life reminded us why he is one of today’s leading Mozart singers. He was equally impressive as a Lieder interpreter. For the most part, he stood practically motionless, expressing emotion and mood almost exclusively through his voice. His superior singing technique enables him to imbue the text with a wide range of colours. He uses forte judiciously, rendering them all the more powerful, and deploys his lovely mezza voce with heart-wrenching effect. Exemplary diction and idiomatic German ensure that no words got lost, but the beautiful, Italianate legato was never compromised.

After Mozart, we could hear how the German art song flowered with Beethoven’s writing for the piano. His most famous song, “Adelaide”, was sung with sweet intensity. We also got a dash of Mr Pisaroni’s comic talent in “Der Kuss”, in which another Chloe threatens to scream if her suitor kisses her, which she does, but only ages after the kiss is over. A group of Heinrich Heine settings by Mendelssohn brought out richer and more dramatic hues in Mr Pisaroni’s voice. Although this cluster included the beloved “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” (On Wings of Song), it was the sprinting “Neue Liebe” (New Love) and “Reiselied” (Travelling Song) which left the bigger imprint. Mr Pisaroni's complex expressivity did full justice to these Romantic riding songs streaked with foreboding and disillusion. He was also very moving in the forlorn agitation of “Allnächtlich im Traume seh' ich dich” (Nightly I see you in my dreams), a setting as worthy as Schumann’s more familiar, dryly glum Dichterliebe version.

More Heine followed after the intermission, which ushered in the prime of the Lied in an exclusively Schubertian second half. The mood changed from Romantic melancholy to sunless despondence with the six Heine songs from Schwanengesang (Swan Song), written in 1828, when Schubert was riven with the illness that would kill him that same year. Only the rolling lilt of “Das Fischermädchen” (The Fisher Girl) offers respite from deep despair. For the other five songs, Mr Pisaroni found shades of darkness within darkness, culminating in the bone-chilling confrontation with the ghost of the narrator’s sorrow in “Der Doppelgänger”.

Wolfram Rieger kept precise tempi on the piano. His accompaniment was somewhat retiring at times, but he played with visible pleasure in the fast passages. It was apparent that pianist and singer trust each other fully. Mr Rieger seemed comfortable assuming a secondary role, except, of course, when the composer demands otherwise, as in “Erlkönig” (The Elf King), in which he showed virtuosic gusto. This ghoulish tale was the centrepiece in the last, all-Goethe set. In his marvellous account, Mr Pisaroni imparted horror by contrasting the urgency in the dialogue with a detached gravitas in the narrator’s voice. The child’s death at the hand of the elf king seemed inevitable from the first bars, and all the more gruesome. The low music of the philosophical “Grenzen der Menscheit” (Mankind’s Limits) held no fears for him: he dispatched its demanding, long lines smoothly and securely.

A lightening of mood and voice followed in “Ganymed”, sung with a perfect curve of elation as Zeus’ beloved boy ascends to Olympus. The programme ended with a forceful, exultory “An Schwager Chronos” (To Coachman Chronos), an expression of unbridled lust for life. The appreciative audience was rewarded with “something in Italian” as an encore: Beethoven’s comic take on Metastasio’s “Che fa il mio bene?” (What is my darling doing?). The waiting lover’s complaint ended with a whine and a trembling lip, sending the audience home on a feather-light note. Devotion, drollery, despair: Luca Pisaroni can sing them all, and he does so with intelligence, musicality and impeccable taste.

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