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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann; Werner Güra, Christoph Berner, Wigmore Hall, January 26th. (ME)

It is seldom that the Wigmore Hall's brochure devotes an entire column to fulsome praise of a singer, and I assume it was the claims made by such august agents as the 'Times' and 'Gramophone' ('..startling and revelatory....a technique second to none..etc. etc. etc.) which encouraged a full house for Werner Güra's recital, although the Wigmore has taken its time to open its doors to him. He does not divulge his age but I would guess that he must be around 33 (that is, extremely close to the likes of Goerne and Bostridge). His recording of 'Die Schöne Müllerin' was the basis of the above rhapsodies, and for this recital he selected an entirely safe programme of well-loved songs.

'An die ferne Geliebte' demonstrated his style; exuding bonhomie and efficiency, without superfluous gesture, and with excellent projection of the tone, even to the critics' seats at the back. The voice is of medium weight, with some pleasing baritonal inflexions and frequently successful incursions into the passagio, but Gura's is, at least on this hearing, a very, very modest talent indeed. I will not presume to compare him to singers closer to his age, but those who were present at Marcus Ullmann's fairly recent debut, to take one obvious example, were conscious that they were hearing a young singer of real promise, with something individual to offer.

The fact that neither I nor anyone else I spoke to could say that of Güra, may have had to do with what are seemingly two small faults, but ones which can loom large in this context. For a native German speaker, his diction is poor, with such words as 'Zeit' coming out as 'site' and a general lack of bite in the enunciation of the language; the English tenor John Mark Ainsley, for example, puts Güra to shame in such songs as 'Wilkommen und Abschied' where crispness of diction is essential. Furthermore, either he was over-confident or simply had underestimated the level of preparation required for such a venue, since he made several errors; perhaps he would benefit from having the score in front of him.

There were many lovely moments in the cycle, principally during "Wo die Berge so blau" where both singer and pianist were successful in suggesting the contrasts between idyllic Nature and tormented lover, and 'Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder' where they caught just the right tone of seriousness and grandeur in the phrasing. However, both singing and playing in general lacked a sense of unity; Berner seemed to have his own ideas about tempi, for example, not all of which he had shared with the singer, and his playing was short on rhythmical sense, particularly in 'Es kehret der Maien, es blühet de Au.' Güra's technique, particularly in matters such as breath control, seemed to me to need work; at the close of 'Leichte Segler in den Höhen' it should be possible to make a seamless link with the first line of 'Diese Wolken,' and when I heard him take a great gulp after "sehen" I thought that he would do so, but the line was broken up by another lumpy breath.

The audience was not happy after the Beethoven, and even less so after the ensuing Schubert group. These are songs which everyone who loves Lieder knows intimately, and of course it is always a joy to hear them, but Güra needs to work on them a lot more intensively. 'Schäfers Klagelied' was pleasantly sung, but 'Erster Verlust' lacked the requisite poignancy, and whereas 'An Mignon' did achieve that Schubertian sense of eagerness and longing, both 'Auf dem See' and 'Der Musensohn' were very much affected by poor diction and sloppy phrasing. 'Der Sänger' was embarrassing, and 'Wilkommen und Abschied' was not helped by Berner's seeming to want to gallop in the opposite direction from the singer.

Those who were less than pleased with the first half received some consolation after the interval, however. 'Dichterliebe' is, of course, a fail-safe piece; no competent singer can really disappoint with Schumann's most loved work, and Güra's performance gave much pleasure. 'Im wunderschönen Monat Mai' showed his frank, enthusiastic style to perfection, and 'Wenn ich in deine Augen seh' was beautifully phrased. Unfortunately much of the cycle was affected by poor diction, most obviously during 'Ich will meine Seele tauchen' where he did nothing with that crucial line 'In wunderbar süsser Stund;' I'm not asking for Fischer-Dieskau style word pointing, but there has to be some slight acknowledgement that 'süsser' is a special word in that context. My notes on this cycle mainly consist of such comments as 'Do something with it!' 'Allnächtlich in Traume' was sung with perfect legato, and the penultimate song did evoke some of the desired aching and anguish; I discerned real sensitivity at 'Ach, könnt ich dorthin kommen.'

The audience was much kinder to him after this, and two encores were offered, 'Die Stille' which was sung with charm but lost something with his substitution of 'Berge' for 'Sterne,' and 'Mein' which did evoke the young man's ardour and all-too-temporary confidence in his love. This is not by any means a great talent, but at its best his singing is attractive in tone and sensitive in style; at present, both he and his enthusiastic and individual accompanist seem to me a little too confident, and a little too general, in dealing with these delicate and deceptively complex miracles which we call Lieder.

Melanie Eskenazi

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