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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Concert Review: The Odd Couple

Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pianist Mitsuko Uchida (left) and soprano Dorothea Röschmann.
Original photo of Dorothea Roschmann  © Sony Classical. Photo of Ms. Uchida by Justin Pumfrey © Universal Music Group.
Photo alteration by the author because it's nice to have them in the same picture.
Every once in a while in this business you get to see something unique. That happened on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, when soprano Dorothea Röschmann gave a lieder recital accompanied by a world-class pianist: Mitsuko Uchida. It is unusual to hear an internationally known virtuoso and a regular touring visitor to Carnegie Hall with a vast repertory in the role of accompanist, but the pairing proved inspired.  The evening, a stop on the artists' current North American tour, featured art songs by Robert Schumann and Alban Berg, in a concert that made the cavernous Stern Auditorium seem intimate and warm despite the crowd in attendance.

The concert opened with Schumann's 12-part Liederkries, a song cycle that stands as one of the Romantic composer's best-loved and most enduring works. The songs, written during the composer's "Miracle Year" of 1840, are based on the poems of Joseph Eichendorff, and deal with alienation (two are titled "In der Fremde" ("In a strange land") medieval forest encounters and in the cycle's most frequently heard song, Mondnacht moonlight. They do not tell a continuous story, but Schumann makes use of tiny recurring motifs and chooses to order Eichendorff's poetry in a way that the verses comment freely on each other.

Ms. Röschmann is an intense and deeply involved interpreter of these songs. Her voice, pliant and wide in the chest register moved smoothly up through the tricky passagio and to an upper register of clarity and power. She places a pronounced vibrato on some upper notes, but one had the sense of a carefully added effect rather than any vocal flaw. She and Ms. Uchida paid close attention to the minutiae of German text, with the only interruptions the rustle of leaves as the concert attendees turned the pages of their libretti in unision.

Ms. Uchida seemed to relish the role of the accompanist, navigating Schumann's sometimes tricky piano passages and adding Romantic flair and Impressionist colors where required. Her performance made one realize that the little codas of these songs are important, like the clip-clopping hooves at the end of "Waldgespracht" (indicating another knight coming to meet his fate) and the sweetness and light of "Die Stille." The cycle ended with the upward surge of "Fruhlingsnacht", a harbinger of spring written in an agile duple meter, with Ms. Röschmann opening her instrument in an ardent acceptance of love.

The period shifted forward to the 20th century for Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, the first fruits of the composer's groundbreaking studies with Arnold Schoenberg. These songs were a watershed for Berg, who orchestrated the songs and compiled them for publication in 1928. They do not constitute a formal cycle but are an excellent launch-point for the listener who might be intimidated by the more difficult later works of this extraordinary composer.

Pianist and singer made the most of the original bare-bones arrangments. From the shifting, rising whole-tones that open "Nacht" to the chromatic post-Wagnerian chords that adorn "Traumegekrönt" , this was an opportunity to hear these piano lines played by such a high-level artist. Her accompaniment supported a supple performance from the singer, who soared through the wide range of emotions and vocal styles needed in these brief, kaleidoscopic song. Ms. Röschmann used the lower range of her instrument with expertise, rising out of the depths for the occasional climactic note and maintaining an air of hushed mystery and awe .

The concert ended with more Schumann: the composer's eight part cycle Frauenliebe und -leben . These poems (by one Adelbert von Chamisso) happen to form a blow-by-blow account of Schumann's courtship of Clara Wieck, the piano virtuoso whom the composer wooed despite the objections of her rich father. These songs express the wonder and delight of new love and the meanings of  engagement rings ("Du Ring an meinem Finger") and bridal dresses (""Helft mir, ihr Schwestern") in poignant terms. The last three songs cover the discovery of pregnancy (""Süßer Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an") the joy of motherhood (""An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust")   and finally death and bereavement (""Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan") an eerie harbinger for the ill-fated composer. He would die in a madhouse 16 years later, just 46 years old.

Throughout, Ms. Uchida and Ms. Roschmann were conscious of the grouped nature of these songs, which end at their beginning point implying the renewal of eternal love. The listeners, rapt, rode the rollercoaster of domestic life, from the simple joys of matrimony to the pain that comes in at the end of a long relationship. Following the last song, these two artists returned for a pair of Goethe-inspired encores: ""Nur wer die sehnsucht kennt?" by Schubert and "Kennst du das land?" by Hugo Wolf. One hopes that these are the composers that this talented pair will turn their attention to next.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.