Festival Music

Amber Wagner & Malcolm Martineau

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

IT IS something of a statement to step into to deputise for another soprano for a recital at a major festival and sing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss before the interval. However quickly Amber Wagner (who will also be singing in the Festival’s closing concert of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung), and pianist Malcolm Martineau, had to assemble their programme, it made sense to precede its two big works - Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder concluding the second half - with lighter fare.

Of the three Bellini songs that began it, the central one, Dolente immagine di Fille Mia, was the most akin to his work for the opera house, but their relative simplicity only hinted at the power Wagner would unleash in her performance of the Strauss, with the Spring opener not so much budding as exploding from the musical soil. Martineau, whose sole Edinburgh appearance this seems to be this year, was a wonderful counterpoint to this, with his delicacy and poise, especially at the end of songs.

It is probably fair to say that you would not go to this American soprano for perfection in pronunciation of either Italian or German, and her full-voiced expression was always about the notes, sometimes at the expense of the words.

That tendency was also detectable in the Samuel Barber songs, in English, which opened the second half, particularly in the complex imagery of Prokosch’s Nocturne, rather than his setting of James Agee’s Sure in this shining night. It led on to the more homespun lyrics set by Charles Ives in The Children’s Hour and Songs my mother taught me, the descriptive clarity of which clearly appealed more directly to the singer.

Perhaps the real joy of closing with the Wagner songs was the way they demonstrated how well the partnership with Martineau worked, especially with the lovely music for the piano of Im Treibhaus and Traume, the latter always a tune made to finish a performance.