Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Trouble at t'mill

Wiener Staatsoper, 10/01/12
Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, D 795
Michael Schade, Rudolf Buchbinder

It struck me at several moments in this concert that Michael Schade’s voice is probably at its peak for performing this repertoire. He had his powerful top gear under expert control and used it none too sparingly but always effectively, without sacrificing tonal beauty or overwhelming Schubert’s line. Moments like his ‘Dein ist mein Herz’ in ‘Ungeduld’ only went as far as was wise, leaving the huntsman to induce a credible sense of crisis. That Schade knows his text was in further evidence with the inertness of ‘Morgengruß’, ‘Des Müllers Blumen’, and ‘Tränenregen’, even if tempi were excessively slow here and one might have questioned where the interpretation appeared to be going. But observed in terms of vocal production alone these three songs were extraordinary. A sense of uninterrupted line was carefully and precisely coloured by notes that Schade dispatched in turn with quiet intensity, creamy softness, and muted half-tones (projected flawlessly). This heightened sensitivity and disinclination to indulge in mere felicities of text and music was present – and no less demanding of focus – in the final three songs.

The rest of the cycle seemed all the more bizarre for contrasting so starkly with the refined slow burn of these efforts. The rhythmic waywardness of ‘Das Wandern’ was noticeably the product of nerves, but the cycle’s other lively songs were disturbingly mannered in a way which seemed quite intentional. Attentiveness to the music slipped and text became garbled. Performing on the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper, Schade also appeared compelled to put in an increasingly unwatchable acting performance. Extravagant hand gestures revealed that his huntsman sports a goatie and the alpine porn star get-up so beloved by the late Jörg Haider; elsewhere there was some mildly disconcerting cupping of manboobs.

Rudolf Buchbinder contributed some sensitive, unfussy piano playing, though I doubted his skills as an accompanist (it’s not something he does often and there were a number of coordination problems including elementary things like picking up Schade’s upbeats). A far greater problem was that the acoustic of the Wiener Staatsoper does not lend itself at all well to a concert grand and, through no fault of Buchbinder, stripped his Steinway of most of its depth and sonority. It took strenuous effort and much overpedalling – hardly ideal – to make this fine specimen of a Model D not sound like a tinny upright, and even then Buchbinder was only intermittently successful. In defending his new Liederabende series, Dominique Meyer has spoken of the Staatsoper as a ‘temple for singing’. Schade sounded fine but that isn’t the problem, as most of the regulars who stayed away from this concert would have recognized. The next Liederabend is Diana Damrau with a harpist, which doesn’t sound much more promising; I suspect the Staatsoper will have to resort to giving away tickets for that event just as they did for this concert.

Schade and Buchbinder have indeed recorded Die schöne Müllerin, hence the image, though judging from the reviews Schade’s 2005 recording with Malcolm Martineau is the better bet.

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