The big hall of the Musikverein is always a tricky place hear song recitals. Song was designed to fit a much different space than the Großer Saal – it is a genre initially designed for salons, living rooms and small halls of an intimate nature. That being said, if there ever were a voice that required the big hall it would be that of Nina Stemme. The dramatic soprano paired with Daniel Barenboim to offer a thought-provoking and varied evening of art song in German, French and Swedish.

Nina Stemme © Neda Navaee
Nina Stemme
© Neda Navaee
Beloved here in Vienna for her operatic interpretations of Wagner and Strauss heroines, Stemme was perhaps out of her element performing Lieder, and her opening Brahms set was not terribly idiomatic. Sung with beautiful but homogenous tone, Stemme was confronted with one of the conundrums of song: many simply lend themselves best to lighter, more flexible voices capable of turning on a dime and floating through a variety of colors. Not that there weren’t some lovely moments. Stemme’s gorgeous lower register was appreciated in Liebestreu and she executed a spectacular crescendo to end Botschaft, but most of the variety in terms of color came from her partner who produced some absolutely gorgeous sounds. To take just one example, in Von ewiger Liebe the voices of the maiden and youth were cut from exactly the same cloth. One wished for more focus on interpretation and variety of sound than on beautiful singing.

Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder which followed, however, were already much more in her ballpark. Written in Switzerland – based on texts by Wagner’s lover, financier and neighbor, the married Mathilde Wesendonk – these five songs (two of which are self-styled “studies” to Tristan) require the long lines and rich volume which are Stemme’s calling card. Her voice is really something to experience, smooth and powerful as honeyed marble, and these songs showed it off beautifully. She and Barenboim shimmered through Der Engel, masterfully negotiated the driving Stehe Still, creating magic in its pianissimo conclusion, and left us wanting more with Träume.

The sets of three songs each by Nadia Boulanger and her sister Lili were new to me, and I was happy to make their acquaintance. Though celebrated more for her students than her compositions, it is unsurprising that Nadia Boulanger’s work would be of interest both in terms of their form and harmonic language. The charming Les lilas sont en folie which opened would have been nicer in a lighter, more flirtatious voice, but Stemme used a slender tone and took a lighthearted approach to it that worked well. Soir d’hiver is a masterful song. It opens with a mother rocking her child, paired with a musical motif which returns to close the song after a dramatic build reveals that child and mother had been abandoned. The operatic nature of Was will die einsame Träne on Heine's text ended the set, Stemme's dramatic fortissimo indicating that she was now well warmed up and ready to take more risks.

Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s younger sister, was a child prodigy whose astounding career was cut short by her death at the tender age of 24 after a lifetime of ill health – making the final line of the song Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve: “je ne sais si je guérirai, ô mon amie” incredibly poignant . The influence of her teacher, Gabriel Fauré could be heard in the harmonic language of Attente and in Au pied de mon lit Barenboim’s tender trills, prayer-like chord progressions and rolled chords did this mini-masterpiece proud. These songs are wonderfully melodic and dramatic and certainly deserve more stage time than they are granted.

The pair ended the evening with a set of six songs by Sibelius, all in Stemme’s native Swedish. Ranging from the simple Törnet (Thorn) to the ballad-like Soluppgång (Sunrise) and Var de ten dröm? (Was it a Dream?) they were effective, but it was Flickan kom från sin älsklings mote, the final number, which brought the house down. This, my favorite Sibelius song, depicts a girl who lies to her mother about the redness of her lips and cheeks, then confesses all with blanched cheeks after discovering her lover to be unfaithful. Generally the song is sung by voices evoking the young girl, but hearing Stemme's mature sound was like re-experiencing it from the refreshing perspective of the mother or an impassioned, omniscient narrator.

The applause following the evening was rapturous, and the duo were called to the stage half a dozen times, offering a last Sibelius number and finally the surprising “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill after which Barenboim pointedly collected his music and the duo enjoyed their final round of enthusiastic applause.