As part of the Melbourne Recital Centre Great Performers Series soprano Christiane Oelze, with Eric Schneider at the piano, gave a concert on October 20 entitled A German Songbook. It was a performance to win hearts.
Renowned for her artistic interpretation of Lieder by composers such as Schubert, Schumann and Mahler, Christiane Oelze’s extensive repertoire also encompasses the decidedly less Romantic world of Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill. In a program of selected works by these five composers, this versatile German soprano displayed the strengths that have made her a much sought after performer of works ranging from Bach to Broadway.
Beginning with a bracket of five familiar songs by Schubert, it was soon apparent that Oelze was not at ease. Initially, she tended to stoop over her music stand rather than maintain direct communication with the audience and needed to cough between some items. Despite this apparent indisposition and some short phrasing for the initial Auf dem Wasser zu singen, her middle voice was light and fresh and her head voice warmly resonant. She was able to negotiate the long sustained lines of Du bist die Ruh with generally impressive control, but there was a sense that vocal technique required concentrated effort. The final stanza, however, was full of expressive longing. In the faster Lieder Oelze was more relaxed and playful as she injected considerable life and character into the text and enjoyed relating to the audience.
It is unusual to hear the same repertoire sung on consecutive nights in the same auditorium, but such is the popularity of Mahler’s Rückert–Lieder that this collection of five songs was also the choice of mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell for her concert with Ensemble Liaison. Both singers chose to perform Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen as the final item rather than the more overtly dramatic Um Mitternacht, as did Lisa Gasteen for the Australian National Academy of Music’s gala concert with Simone Young in August. All singers plumbed the bleak depths and passion of Um Mitternach with dark tone and passionate climaxes. For all the beauty and artistry of the other singers’ interpretations, Oelze had the added advantage of singing with piano alone. As her regular and highly accomplished partner, Eric Schneider was particularly sensitive to her musical intentions, allowing her to employ a wide dynamic range and achieve the softest pianissimos while remaining completely audible. She was also able to vary shadings and use an effectively dark chest voice at key moments of Um Mitternach without forcing the tone.
Although Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen has a resigned melancholy, it does not send the audience away overwhelmed by existential Angst; rather, it is one of the most beautiful songs ever written and an emotional revelation to those who have never heard it before. An indication of its status can be seen in the recent EMI compilation of Mahler’s complete works, where a whole CD is devoted to his Rückert–Lieder. Eight different versions of this ravishing Lied are featured, the most leisurely of them performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Daniel Barenboim. Oelze and Schneider also chose to linger, immersing themselves, and us, in a hushed suspension of time.
After interval, Schneider asked the audience to save the applause until the end of the concert since the works by Eisler, Schumann and Weill would be played straight through without a break. With Schumann as apparently incongruous meat in the sandwich, this seemed a strange idea but one that worked well in practice. Five short selections from Eisler’s The Hollywood Songbook, with texts mainly by friend and fellow exiled communist sympathiser Berthold Brecht, were a welcome inclusion of less familiar, arresting music. Increasingly relaxed and engaging, Oelze sang with simple expressiveness as she and Schneider conveyed the bitter charm of songs that traversed the anguish of exile and the consolations of nature.
The final dramatic words of Die Heimhehr: “death-dealing locusts tell you I shall be coming. Conflagrations hail the son’s return” led straight into Schumann’s In der Fremde, making a surprisingly smooth transition to Eichendorff’s poetry as warm, rolling piano motion underpinned Oelze’s long-breathed phrases of exiled longing. Her Waldesgesprach was another exercise in expressive colour. I cannot recall hearing such a sinister Lorelei as she smiled at her doomed prey. In immediate contrast, Oelze and Schneider captured the serene tranquillity of Mondnacht, another magical Lied requiring a finely controlled, sustained legato line.
The transition from Im Walde to the tango habanera rhythms of Weill’s Youkali was a jolt, but Oelze quickly established the cabaret mood and brought off one of the highlights of the evening splendidly, proving that she is equally at home as a chanteuse. The last sighing verse sounded as though it was coming through an opium haze. Whether semi-spoken or using a gorgeously rounded floating head voice or a tone of harsh dismissal, her Je ne t’aime pas was a deliciously theatrical depiction of feminine turmoil.
Following the two excerpts from Marie Galante, Oelze moved from French to English for Speak Low from One Touch of Venus and the Alabama Song from Mahagonny. Schneider added his voice to the “Oh don’t ask why” refrain and the last verse while Oelze supplied a very high obbligato line for this final number. It was a most enjoyable way to conclude what was an increasingly rewarding concert.
By the end of the evening, Christiane Oelze had won many hearts and minds with her choice of repertoire, her vocal gifts, her personality and her artistry.