It took me several days to write anything about the first concert I attended in this festival, because, most unusually for me, I found it a challenge to describe what I had seen and heard in language which would even come near to evoking the nature of the experience; in the case of these later concerts, I can only make the excuse that, like everyone else, the events of Tuesday 11th "temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." Our remaining three concerts were one enjoyable, one indifferent, and one which I can only say has to be one of the ten or so greatest musical events of my life.
Michael Schade having cancelled his Wednesday afternoon concert owing to Laryngitis, we decided to go and hear Felicity Lott, Ann Murray and Graham Johnson that evening, despite a programme which did not endear itself to either of us. However, despite a few cringes, it proved to be a most enjoyable concert. These two "grandes dames," dressed in what the local paper delightfully called "...etwas antiquierten Glitzer-look......" began with Lachner's "Gute Nacht," performed with superb unity and lovely sense of line, and then a selection of Schumann duets reminded us once again of how wonderful it used to be to hear these two singers and this pianist with other members of the Songmakers' Almanac; the singing and playing was utterly professional yet still had that really "Schubertian" sense of a group of close friends who had come together just to enjoy making music. The first half ended with Schaffer's "Frau Direktorin und Frau Inspektorin," hilariously sung and acted.
The second half offered some lovely singing of Gounod by Felicity Lott; her feeling for the nuance of Mélodie is unequalled amongst British singers, and her diction and phrasing give constant pleasure. The recital proper ended with a Rossini selection, all beautifully sung, but the best was yet to come; introduced by Graham Johnson with his usual languid air, there followed a very funny rendition of the Sullivan staple "Going Home," as well as an hilarious "Cats' Duet" which began as a brilliantly performed solo for Ann Murray, and a real "encore," the Lachner "Gute Nacht" once more. This was not a recital to change one's life, but it certainly sent the audience out into the soft alpine night in convivial spirits.
Our next evening was to be spent in the company of Europa Galante, directed by Fabio Biondi, and David Daniels. Unfortunately, I got a chest infection which led to coughing, and, rather than spoil the concert for the devoted Daniels-ites, I left half way through. Perhaps my indisposition partly accounts for the fact that I found what I did hear, somewhat lacklustre. I thought the playing of Mascitti's Concerto Op. 7 / 4 was sometimes ragged in ensemble and approximate in intonation, and as for Daniels, I am sad to say that this was not the first time I have found him detached and unexciting. One hardly expects too much passion in Vivaldi, but it is possible to present both the words and the musical line with engagement and sensitivity, but I heard only competence and detachment; he has a beautiful voice and handsome presence but on this occasion he was so laid back as to be languid.
It was an entirely different story the following evening, when we attended a recital which, to use Flaubert's memorable phrase, "...opened up the mind and heart and senses, like flowers in bloom." I refer of course to Thomas Quasthoff and Justus Zeyen's evening of Schubert, with "Schwanengesang" making up the first half, and unforgettable performances of songs to poems by Seidl, Schulze and Goethe the second, followed by three superlative encores. As Quasthoff had said earlier that day at lunch, it was to be "Ein langes Programm!" It certainly was, but every note was worth hearing.
"Schwanengesang" was performed in its entirety, with short pauses after "Abschied" and "Der Doppelgänger." In the Rellstab settings, Quasthoff's interpretation lies mid way between the dark intensity of Goerne and the lyrical tenderness of Ainsley, but his wonderfully even bass-baritone is produced with such seeming effortlessness that the experience of hearing him in recital is unlike any other, since one is freed from any questions of technique or demeanour, and able to focus entirely on the music and poetry. In "Liebesbotschaft," singer and pianist achieved the truly Schubertian miracle of linking the lover's emotions with the rippling undercurrents of the brook, yet also made us hear that the overriding emotion here is not so much ardour as passionate feeling held in check.
"Kriegers Ahnung" is a song in which Schubert contrasts the bleakness of the present with the delectability of memory, and Quasthoff's singing made the difference almost painfully clear, especially at "Wie freundlich schien des Herdes Glut/Lag sie in meinem Arm!" The famous "Ständchen" was sung as though it had been composed that day, its freshness and ardour undiminished. "In der Ferne" was, for me, the high point of the first half; this song sometimes drifts by unremarkably, but here Quasthoff and Zeyen built up such a sense of utterly mesmerising sadness that one was left almost bewildered by it.
The Heine settings are perfect for this voice, and Quasthoff sings them as though no other way but his is the right one." Ihr Bild" was perfection; from the melancholy opening chords on the piano, through the tenderness of "Ein Lächeln, wunderbar," and on to the anguish of the closing line, it would be impossible to imagine a finer performance. "Der Doppelgänger" closed this section with tremendous force; beginning in a daring half-voice, and gradually building to that high G with inexorable force whilst never losing beauty of tone, Quasthoff and his accompanist made words and music seem as though they had come from within us all. No one made of flesh and blood could possibly have avoided bursting into applause after that, but it was to be short - lived, since a lyrically beautiful "Taubenpost" followed, sung with that truly Schubertian mix of ardour and melancholy, and closing with such an exquisite rendition of that little appoggiatura lean on "Sehnsucht" that it brought tears to your eyes. And that was just the first half.........
After the interval, we were treated to definitive performances of many of the very greatest of Schubert's songs; that is to say, some of the finest things made by man in the nineteenth century. Every song was a small miracle of performance art, so I must select only three examples of perfection. "Wandrers Nachtlied I" is one of my most loved pieces of music, and Quasthoff sang it in such a way as to convey its tenderness and melancholy with the most sublime directness and intimacy; I can still hear his poetic legato line at "Komm, ach, komm in meine Brust!" "Der Sänger" was a tour de force; this tremendously dramatic, almost operatic piece is not for everyone, but Quasthoff and Zeyen persuaded you of its fascination - everything you could desire was there, from the tripping sounds of the page running with his message, to the mixture of wry humour and grandeur in the old man's words.
Best of all was "Im Frühling," that wondrous song in which Schubert's music captures Schulze's mood of joy remembered simultaneously with sadness regained. Quasthoff's limpid singing of the introductory, descriptive lines with their evocation of idyllic past happiness, was followed by the most piercing sorrow in "Einst, ach, so glücklich war;" and voice and piano blended in utter longing at "Und sie in Himmel sah'" The final lines, with their sense of bittersweet memory, were sung with the most perfect candour, the little gasps of rubato at just the most evocative moments - "Den ganzen Sommer lang." And what a summer this one was, to end with such a display of vocal art.
Unbelievably, after such a long evening's singing, Quasthoff was in lively mood for three amazing encores; the first, which he announced as being "about something I suffer from very much" was a surprising "Ungeduld:" I had not associated "Die Schöne Müllerin" with him, yet he sang this song from it superlatively, with a real sense of urgency and longing; I have seldom heard the crucial line "Und sie merkt nichts von all dem bangen Treiben" (and she knows nothing of all my anxious longing) delivered with such anguished poignancy.
Even more wonderful, and of course unnecessary to announce, was "Erlkönig." I must have heard this song at least five hundred times, in more recitals and recordings than I can list, but this was the nearest thing to a perfect version that I can ever hope to hear. Magisterial as the narrator, warmly paternal as the father, touching as the child, and so chilling as the spirit that he made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up; singing such as this is quite simply incomparable. Another standing ovation was greeted by Quasthoff with "What? You want more? Are you sure?" and then he launched - a bar too early for Zeyen - into a charming account of "Die Forelle." To sing like this as part of a scheduled recital would be fine enough, but to do it after a full evening is just incredible - and he seemed to be enjoying it, too.
One has to ask oneself if anything closer to heaven than such singing and playing, could possibly be imagined, and when I look back on those blessed hours of music now, they take upon themselves the air of things from a different world. Philip Larkin wrote of the time before the Great War, as one in which there was "Never such innocence, / Never before or since, /As changed itself to past / Without a word ..../ Never such innocence again." The Schubertiade certainly seems like part of an innocent past to me now, and Schiller's lines have a peculiar resonance -
"Ach, nur in dem Feenland der Lieder
Lebt noch deine fabelhafte Spur."