The Berlin International Music Festival is an attempt to fill in the Sommerloch’s blank by offering a series of masterclasses and concerts when basically nothing else is happening in the classical music scene in Germany’s capital city.
In its second edition, the main guest was soprano Cheryl Studer, who offered two concerts beside teaching classes. I could attend the second one of them, in which she sang Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder, a work she has recorded for DG with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Giuseppe Sinopoli 16 years ago.
Comparing this evening’s performance with the studio recording was a fascinating experience. To start with, although the soprano is 54 years old, she still retains the unique youthful bell-toned tonal quality that made her particularly convincing in Straussian and Wagnerian jugendlich dramatisch repertoire. Her mezza voce does not come easily as it used to, but her high g’s and a’s (truth be said, these Lieder’s tessitura is not very high) were evenly produced and also radiant and forceful, not to mention that her low register has a richer and warmer sound these days. After a bumpy Der Engel, she offered a stylish account of these songs. More than that – her interpretation showed far more depth, her legato was more spontaneous and she seemed to establish a more immediate emotional connection to the text at present than in the “ideal” studio conditions of her Dresden recording. And this is far more relevant than a couple of flat pianissimi. Michael Wendeberg offered sensitive accompaniment with the Festival’s pick-up orchestra, but – maybe because of the extremely warm acoustics – clarity was not orchestra’s strong feature.
Considering the controversies involving Ms. Studer’s later career, I know that my four or five readers are eager to ask if this was a veteran’s or a still-active singer’s performance. As said before, the Wesendonk Lieder are not exactly a tough piece of singing. In them, in spite of the minor glitches, her voice was in very good shape and particularly fresh-toned for a woman at her age; an “innocent listener” would have no reason to think of waning vocal resources. I have seen on the Cheryl Studer Society’s website that she has not been very active these days and more dedicated to her teaching career. In any case, she is not the first lyric soprano who had ventured into heavier repertoire to retire from the operatic stage to emerge as an occasional recitalist once they were 50. At 54, Lisa della Casa said farewell to opera houses. Gundula Janowitz, for example, was no longer “active” at this age. Kiri Te Kanawa can only be seen in recitals these days.
The Wesendonk Lieder were actually the second part of the program. Before the intermission, 19-year-old Korean pianist Sun Wook Kim displayed solid technique and the rare ability to catch the mood of a piece through tone colouring, but the whole approach seemed a bit too “Romantic” for the piece, which ideally requires a bit more sparkle and forward movement. The conductor should be praised nonetheless for the chamber music-like dialogue between pianist and the orchestra, the coherent performance of which is more remarkable considering this is no stable formation.
Update: I have just read an article on Tagesspiegel about the cancellation of Cheryl Studer’s recital on the Berlin International Music Festival. Yes, I had noticed that the event was a bit modest for someone with her reputation and far from “international” in standard, but in any case I am surprised to see a newspaper publish something so virulent about an artist for no reason at all. In any case, I was there and saw nothing like “Cheryl Studer’s drama”, as the newspaper suggests. She was in good voice and sang the Wesendonck Lieder stylishly and expressively.