Juliane Banse (soprano), Martin Helmchen (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.5.1
Wolf: Six Lieder to texts by Eduard Mörike, Mignon-Lieder
Schubert: Geheimnis, An Mignon, Kennst du das Land, Gasänge aus Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Sehnsucht, Der Einsame, Der König in Thule, Auf dem See, Bei dir allein!
Juliana Banse is a rare visitor to these shores, but her reputation precedes her. An impressive debut recording of concert arias made quite an impression when it was released here a few years ago, leading many, myself included, to follow her opera career in German houses with great interest. Her accompanist this evening is also an established recording artist who has made precious few appearances on the London stage. Martin Helmschen’s concerto recordings on PentaTone have garnered much well-deserved praise, and present him as a distinctive musician able to give convincing and personal perspectives on repertoire both mainstream and obscure. So expectations ran high.
Some of them were met and some of them were not, but the artistry and personality of both singer and pianist made this a memorable evening. The programme was standard Wigmore fare: well-known Wolf – Mörike songs and Mignon-Lieder, and slightly obscure Schubert – Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Der König in Thule, among others. It’s all music that needs personality, emotion and high level of artistry, and on those criteria it all succeeded.
Banse, though, was not on top form. The occasional cough between songs suggested that she was bravely attempting to conceal some minor respiratory condition. That impression was also supported by occasional horse notes, poorly controlled crescendos and a shrill tone on many of the top notes. Were it not for the contrast between her performance this evening and those on her recordings, these defects may have gone unnoticed, but, good as this performance was, it did not show her at her best.
But these are technical issues only, and the artistry of her singing was not affected. Banse has a very aristocratic sound, old-fashioned in all the best senses. She has round, plummy vowels and is able to project well on almost any letter: the resonance she achieves on ‘m’s and ‘n’s is particularly impressive. Vibrato is reserved for the very ends of long notes at the ends of phrases, and a wide range of colours and tones is employed to give variety even within individual phrases.
The chosen repertoire gave Martin Helmchen many chances to shine. He is able to draw a rounder and warmer sound from the Wigmore Steinway than most can manage, and even when he reaches grand climaxes, the precision and evenness of his touch are never in doubt. He is as much a soloist as he is an accompanist in these works, which is exactly what Wolf and Schubert demand. He and Banse are happy to allow each other their rubato, with the two of them often moving in and out of synchronisation to good expressive effect.
Wolf proved the better music for Helmchen, while Banse was better suited to Schubert. The pianist’s warm tone and liberal expressive approach is more fin de siècle than it is Classical, while the aristocratic refinement of Banse’s singing sits better in the long 18th century. Her intonation was occasionally suspect, but this may have been down to the cold as well.
The concert ended on a high with Wolf’s Mignon-Lieder. The vocal line here is predominantly in the lower register, where Banse’s affliction mattered little. And despite her more reserved approach, the passionate and often pained lyricism was communicated well. Helmschen’s artistry was shown off to good effect by the virtuosic accompaniments, which almost became character pieces under his hands.
An interesting concert, then, and one that gave London audiences a rare and welcome chance to get to know the work of these two musicians. But it was frustrating too, as it was clear throughout that Banse is capable of so much more, but wasn’t able to deliver on the night.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard online until 28 May: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01sj041