Emanuel Ax, Emma Bell, Patrick Stewart - Wigmore Hall, 28 June 2007
Richard Strauss: Freundliche Vision, Das Rosenband, Nachtgang, Muttertändelei, Morgen, Fünf Klavierstücke Op. 3 (Nos. 1 & 4), Zueignung, Du meines Herzens Krönelein, Traum durch die Dämmerung, Schlechtes Wetter, Enoch Arden Op. 38
What an odd night this was. A real game of two halves, linked by pianist Emanuel Ax and composer Richard Strauss. In the first, we had the fabulous soprano Emma Bell, with a programme of Strauss lieder. And in the second, Patrick Stewart tackled Strauss's rarely performed Enoch Arden, a 'melodrama', or story narrated with piano accompaniment.
Emma Bell's enormous voice and impeccable technical control made everything she sang sound easy, even though much of it really wasn't. The dark edge to her full, bright sound gave the more lyrical pieces colour and depth. The couple of notionally 'comic' songs she tried didn't come off quite as well, her goggle eyed sauciness not enough to rise above the anachronistic humour. I would have preferred if she'd played to her strengths and replaced these with something darker and more dramatic. But her half-length recital still left me wanting more.
Tennyson's poem Enoch Arden is the story of a sailor thought drowned at sea who returns home after several years to find that his wife has remarried. Seeing her contentment, he hides that he is alive and sacrifices his happiness for hers. Richard Strauss composed a fairly scanty piano accompaniment, which appears only at the most dramatic moments. For much of the 45 minute-odd reading of the poem, the piano is silent. When it does come in, it's in snatches of atmospheric themes, not in architecturally-crafted pieces. This music was not designed to stand alone without the text, and it probably couldn't. Seen purely in musical terms, it's almost a failure before it starts. That may be why quite a few seats in the Wigmore Hall emptied at the interval without even giving Patrick Stewart a try.
But if there's anyone who could make even the telephone directory sound interesting, it's Patrick Stewart. It's that rich resonant chocolate velvet voice, a musical instrument in itself. His reading was clear and beautifully paced, and he handled the quaint victorianisms of the text deftly. The story grew more spellbinding as he spun it, with Strauss's cunningly placed piano interludes accentuating the drama, though Emanuel Ax was unfortunately tempted to thunder through some of his accompaniment, nearly drowning out Stewart.
Whatever the quality of the performances though, for most of the time it felt like watching a radio show being made. Recording of course wasn't a real option in Strauss's day, but for a piece with this level of theatrical impact that would be a more sensible home.