Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, April 2015)

Soprano Dorothea Röschmann (left) and pianist Mitsuko Uchida (right)

Soprano Dorothea Röschmann (left) and pianist Mitsuko Uchida (right)

I had the good fortune this week to attend one of the finest Lieder recitals I’ve heard in many years, by soprano Dorothea Röschmann and pianist Mitusko Uchida. They will repeat the program at Carnegie Hall on 22 April – if you are able to go, I highly recommend it.

Carnegie, of course, is a large hall, more than four times the size of Philadelphia’s Perelman Theatre. I’m grateful to have had the more intimate experience, but I have no doubt that Röschmann and Uchida will fill Carnegie, both in terms of a capacity audience, and in the artistic sense. This is music making on a grand scale.

It’s become fashionable to “loosen up” the song recital – presenting more eclectic material, for example, and sometimes having the soloist speak to the audience about the selections – but neither was the case here. The program was elegantly focused – two Schumann groups (Op. 39, and Frauenliebe und Leben), and between them, Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder. And though Röschmann is a generous and highly communicative artist – and the warmth between her and Uchida was palpable – they presented themselves somewhat formally, perhaps to allow the songs themselves to have the first and last word. (It probably also goes without saying that having an accompanist of Uchida’s international stature is unusual. It was clear from the start that the two performers share a similar musical imagination.)

Dorothea Röschmann talks about collaborating with Mitsuko Uchida

Röschmann’s voice has retained its alluring sheen, but has also grown and darkened since her early performances. Although she’s still very much a soprano, there’s now an amber glow to the middle register. Often, Röschmann’s tone strikingly recalls Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, though without Schwarzkopf’s silvery float at the top of the voice. (On the other hand, Röschmann has an exceptionally plangent lower register, used to great effect in a number of songs, particularly Schumann’s “Auf einer Burg.”) Röschmann occasionally falls into the Schwarzkopf habit of covering the tone to achieve a sense of color, which can cloud her diction.  But even when the words aren’t clearly articulated, the emotional message behind them always is.

Dorothea Röschmann sings four Mignon-Lieder by Hugo Wolf

Röschmann is a bold, dramatic artist, whose engagement with her songs is complete – in her voice, but also evident in her body language and facial expressions. She favors slow tempos, and isn’t afraid to use a rubato to shape a line. Sometimes this requires breaking a phrase for breath – not unlike Lotte Lehmann, who could also use this to dramatic effect. Although Röschmann can certainly find lightness in a moment – she has a lovely smile in her vocal tone – there’s something mournful underneath, even in the happier pieces. (Again, Röschmann is ideally paired in this with Uchida, whose similar sense of  shape, color and dynamics is ideal for this collaboration.)

Every interpretative choice that Röschmann and Uchida made were memorable and personal, but for me, the revelation was Frauenliebe und Leben. It’s a cycle that’s generally overdone for my taste, and one that is sometimes criticized for the banality of its text. (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf famously dismissed it as “kitchen maid poetry,” though toward the end of her career, she relented, at least to the extent that she recorded it.) Yet, It’s easy to understand why singers are attracted to it – the melodies are lovely, and the sad story of the young bride is touching. But it’s tough to get it right.

My favorite recording of the cycle is by Irmgard Seefried, whose voice and manner feel artlessly natural, almost childlike. With a straightforward, fairly fast accompaniment by pianist Erik Werba, this is a performance that never asks for sympathy, and is all the more touching for it.

Röschmann and Uchida go in a different direction. Tempos are basically slow, and there’s a myriad of shifts and plays of color. Looking at Röschmann’s face suggests a sense of tragic loss from the very start – as if the young bride intuits that her joyous moments – engagement, wedding, the discovery of intimacy and the birth of her child – will be fleeting.

It took a while for me to accept this interpretation – my initial response was that it was almost more than the song cycle could support. But by the overwhelming end, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. As my partner, Simon, said – it sounds like better music than it ever has before.

Now that is what I call artistry!

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