Monday, December 11, 2006

Portion control

Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager was scheduled to give a duo recital yesterday with Barbara Bonney, but Bonney's temporary (?) departure from performing left Kirchschlager carrying the day solo. Perhaps this explains how she ended up getting in her own way.

Kirchschlager offered twelve Schumann songs before the break ("Freisinn", "Erstes Grün", "Hoch, hoch sind die Berge", "Die Soldatenbraut", "Liebeslied", "Das verlassne Mägdelein", "Stille Tränen", "Die Löwenbraut", "Lust der Sturmnacht", "Morgens steh' ich auf und frage", "Der Einsiedler", and "Abendlied") and eleven by Schubert after ("Auf dem See", "Das Echo", "Des Mädchens Klage", "Nähe des Geliebten", "Bei dir allein", "Wiegenlied", "Der Pilgrim", "Sehnsucht", "Lied des Florio", "An den Mond", and "An die Musik").

As you can see, each half was about as heterogeneous a lineup as one could get with a single composer. The songs came one after the other, without apparent theme or progression. It was, in other words, like listening to a CD -- a very enjoyable one, as she was in delicious voice.

But in listening to even Schumann or Schubert from a smorgasbord CD, one doesn't give unmoving attention for a disc-length span. Without the continuity or drama of a cycle or thematic set, one's engagement drifts in and out; adapting one's ear to one different thing after another is fatiguing. Recitalists these days tend to take this into account, breaking up into shorter sets what could be a too-long cavalcade of songs.

But with no set breaks (and no "applause line" finishes in the early songs), the mostly well-behaved Alice Tully audience had no opportunities to reset its focus and attention. This, unfortunately, prompted a pretty consistent background of coughs and fidgets (and one quickly-stilled cell phone) that threw Kirchschlager off. What made it worse was the lack of applause points gave no occasion for the audience to engage positively with Kirchschlager before intermission either. CD-style listening passivity was, unfortunately, maintained, and her performance reflected that.

Applause at the half was enthusiastic, which I think surprised her. But the Schubert half brought back the original dynamic, with Kirchschlager's irritation growing more obvious (and her singing more remote) until she actually stopped to chide the audience about the importance of silence. This didn't, mind you, have much effect, and she looked several times as if she might stop again. Nevertheless, she sang her best at the end here.

After a storm of applause, she gave two encores -- Schumann's "Widmung" and a Poulenc song -- with vivid expressive freedom but tiring breath. Had she defused audience-performer tension nearer the start, it might have been a great afternoon.

As it was, the most successful songs were two of the narratives -- Die Löwenbraut and Der Pilgrim -- in which she gave lively voice to contrasting moods and events.

Recitalists, please: unless it's "Winterreise", leave some room for applause.

UPDATE (11AM): I forgot the oddest development -- by the last few songs, Kirchschlager herself took to coughing between songs. Whether this was actual distress or sarcastic commentary, I honestly couldn't tell.


  1. Stopped to chide the audience? What did she say?

  2. Something like: They say silence, for a musician, is like a clean canvas for a painter. So please keep the canvas clean...

    Fairly mild-mannered but awkward nonetheless.

  3. Thanks.

    I think that audiences do a lot of coughing and fidgeting when they find a performance to be not quite interesting enough.

    I saw her in a solo recital in Boston with a different program, and also in a joint recital at Carnegie Hall with Simon Keenlyside a couple of years ago. I find her somewhat boring. I'd like her recitals better if she had programs with more variety. Some singers could carry off the sort of program that she does, but I don't feel that she is able to do so.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.