A great song cycle continues to be a treasure trove of possibilities for performers and the sixteen jewels that make up the customary version of Schumann’s Dichterliebe is a striking case in point. Although dedicated to a famous soprano of her time, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, this intensely Romantic work is almost always sung by a man, in keeping with the central character of Heinrich Heine’s poems: a young poet, who recounts his story of love found and lost. There are many fine interpretations available on disc and online exploring the beguiling facets of this intruiging work.
It was inevitable that Samuel Sakker would present a more operatic account of the poet’s travails – expansive rather than the smaller, more intimate versions of the Lieder salon. The fact that he had his back to the Hamer Hall auditorium and was facing a small audience and the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall 5stream camera did not deter him from making full use of the acoustic possibilities of a huge, resonant space. Those listening from home might have had sound systems hi-tech enough to capture at least some of the wonder of the opening song Im wunderschönen Monat Mai; the audience sharing the stage with Sakker and his accompanist, Stewart Kelly, were astounded by the unique way the cavernous auditorium rang with tenor splendour.
Full-bodied abundance at two paces might have been too much of a good thing coming from a lesser singer, but Sakker’s voice has a velvety, rounded richness that makes for consistently enjoyable listening. In the whole recital, there was not one note that was less than beautiful. What is more, the details of Schumann’s music and Heine’s poetry were compellingly conveyed as the mood shifted between the ecstasies of requited love to the ragged despair of its loss. After the initial outpouring, the joy continued on a quieter although not less passionate note. Sakker and Kelly struck a satisfyingly happy medium between literal and the hyper-expressive rhythmic dislocations favoured by some singers and their associated artists. The breathless rapture of Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne, and the giddy despair of Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen, as the young man watches his beloved marry another were accorded a flexible delicacy infused with passion. Sakker’s control of his fine instrument enabled him to find a balance between calm, nuanced expressiveness and outbursts of emotional extremity.
Heine’s poems are notable for their edge of bitter irony, but it remains a moot point as to whether Schumann fully appreciated the bitterness in 1840 – his “year of song” when he finally married Clara Wieck and composed more than 130 Lieder. Perhaps it is clearest in the self-mockery of Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen as the young man sees himself as a cliché of love betrayed. Here Sakker’s shift from rollicking narrative to a sense of: “I don’t care how commonplace all this is, it is still agonising”, made its bitter point convincingly.
Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of Sakker’s interpretation, the aspect that sets him apart from more traditional Lieder singers, was his capacity to bring so much weight to the “big” numbers. We don’t often get to hear the whole song cycle (much less the four other poems that Schumann originally included in Dichterliebe) but a handful of songs are familiar. Ich grolle nichtis, understandably, a great favourite of recitalists and Eistedfodd contestants. You would go a long way to find a singer capable of Sakker’s commanding interpretation. And he doesn’t lose power on the low notes in this or any other song. Similarly, the final Die alten, bösen Lieder, featuring Heidelberg’s great barrel, the bridge at Mainz and twelve giants strong enough to bear the coffin containing the poet’s grief and bury it in the sea, was given gripping intensity.
So, what could possibly come after this tour de force? Four songs by Richard Strauss, of course – in style and character, sufficiently similar yet different. Sakker was right when he said that the recital would not be complete without the inclusion of his wife, soprano Rachel Wolseley, who sang Allerseelen and Das Rosenband. Her warm, flowing soprano made a most attractive contrast to Schumann’s angst-ridden finale. Sakker followed with persuasive accounts of Ich trage meine Minne and Zueignung, the concluding words “Habe Dank!” ringing particularly true at this time.
What was not on the program was the encore piece. Sakker cheerfully admitted that the duet from Beethoven’s Fidelio was not really in keeping with a Lieder recital, but convinced us that something celebrating the triumph of love over adversity was perfectly in order. Schumann had finally triumphed over the obstacles presented by Clara’s father just as Leonore had risked all to rescue her beloved husband Florestan. Stewart Kelly was once again their skilled accompanist and enabler.
Apart from being an opportunity to hear a talented soprano, the participation of Rachel Wolseley was a reflection of the friendly, collegial atmosphere that has been such an important part of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall concerts. Chris Howlett has a strongly personal approach that draws in an audience and fosters a closer connection to the performers and composers. While there is nothing to equal breathing the same air as performers, MDCH continues to give us the best of both worlds.
Heather Leviston attended the recital “A Poet’s Love” performed by Samuel Sakker, Stewart Kelly and Rachel Wolseley in Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall and streamed via Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on April 13, 20121.