“Just one look, that’s all it took,” went a lyric to an old song. I thought of this when Dorothea Röschmann began to sing. Just one phrase, that’s all it took—to know that she was herself, that she was still Dorothea Röschmann.
I had had my doubts, based on recent performances. Was the great German soprano finished? Done as dinner? No, she is not done—not at all—on the evidence of last night.
Röschmann gave a recital in Zankel Hall along with Malcolm Martineau, the esteemed Scottish accompanist. (“Accompanist,” by some, is held to be a putdown. They can go jump in a lake.) Leading off the program was a set by Schubert, the first song of which was “Heiss mich nicht reden.” When Röschmann sang the first phrase, she was clearly “on.” She was “hooked up.” That is, the voice was in place, buttressed by a sound technique. The singer was in tune. She was “light,” in the sense of free—unburdened.
A legendary golf instructor, Bill Strausbaugh Jr., used to speak of “a light ball off the clubface.” That’s what happens when technique is sound. There is, of course, an analogy to singing. (I once asked Barbara Bonney, “Is singing like golf?” “No,” she said, “they’re the same.”)
To hear Röschmann “hooked up” was both a joy and a relief. And she would remain that way for the rest of the evening.
She lent considerable drama to the Schubert songs. She did not keep them on the shelf, to be admired as pretty objects. She also seemed to be enjoying herself, knowing that she was “on.” Martineau played in his usual neat, intelligent way.
The second-to-last of their Schubert songs was “Kennst du das Land.” That is not the most famous setting of that Goethe poem, I would say. I think the most famous setting is Wolf’s. This is curious, in that Schubert towers above all song composers, even Wolf (who is pretty towering himself). Schubert’s “Kennst du das Land” differs from Wolf’s in this way, I think: It is essentially happy. Wolf gives you such pangs.
Once they had finished with Schubert’s “Kennst du das Land,” Röschmann and Martineau bowed and left the stage. This confused the audience, I sensed, in that there was one Schubert song left to go. The pair returned for “Nachtstück.” Like its predecessors, it was superb, although Röschmann flatted a bit on the final, sustained note.
They next performed the Rückert-Lieder, Mahler’s great cycle (one of them, I should say). You can do these songs in any order you want. Röschmann and Martineau did not choose my preferred order, but theirs was good enough.
They began with the fast one, “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder.” The song was lively indeed. Röschmann tried out some strange rubato, which was effective. Martineau was impressive in following her every whim or instinct.
At the beginning of the next song, “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft,” he brought out magic. He sprinkled the opening notes with fairy dust. I believe this is exactly what Mahler intends. And, during this song, as in others, Röschmann showed a beautiful lower register.
I was worried about “Um Mitternacht,” as she sang it. It seemed to me too pretty and subdued. But Röschmann was singing “within herself.” She was mindful of the resources she has. And she let out plenty of drama when it counted, at the end.
What do I mean by “the resources she has”? I think the marvelous Röschmann instrument is smaller now. And it has assumed different properties. But, as I’ve said, Röschmann is still Röschmann.
Last of the Rückert-Lieder was “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” Before it began, I whispered to the friend sitting next to me, “This is the greatest song ever written.” But hang on, wasn’t I just saying, a week ago, that “Bist du bei mir” is the greatest song ever written? Yes—but I also said, in parentheses, “Don’t hold me to it.”
“Bist du bei mir” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” are co–greatest songs ever written.
From Röschmann and Martineau, the Mahler was very good, of course. But I also thought it was a little fussed with. And not quite transporting. Martineau did some funky pedaling, which worked, more or less. Röschmann broke up some long lines with breaths—but I should not say “broke up.” She handled these breaths astutely and musically. She is a “consummate professional,” to indulge in a cliché.
Annoyingly, the “Zankel subway,” as I call it, rumbled alongside “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” The quieter and more sublime the song, of course, the more the subway obtrudes.
After “Ich bin der Welt . . .,” my friend had this comment: “sad but comforting.” Her reaction speaks for many, I think.
To begin the second half of the recital, Röschmann sang the Mary Stuart songs of Schumann, Op. 135. These are rarely done; they should be in our lives more often. Röschmann sang them with clarity, taste, and passion. She was ever tasteful, but not at the cost of passion. When she was passionate, it was not at the cost of taste.
The final work on the program was the Wesendonck Lieder of Wagner. As Martineau began the opening song, “Der Engel,” Röschmann smiled as if to say, “This will be a wonderful ride.” It was. The final song, “Träume,” was duly transporting.
There were encores—beginning with a Liszt song, “Es muss ein Wunderbares sein.” Then back to Schumann: “Die Lotosblume.” In these songs, Röschmann was utterly relaxed, singing with extra freedom, as though in the afterglow of a demanding and successful recital.
The audience clapped and clapped. And clapped and clapped. Still, the performers weren’t coming out again. The audience kept clapping. I seldom see this, in a concert hall. Usually, performers are all too eager to oblige with encores. Finally, the pair emerged—and did a Wolf song, one of the best, “In der Frühe.”
For Wolf songs, I will always have Schwarzkopf in my ear. They were put there long ago, and I’m afraid they are indelible. But Röschmann was awfully good in “In der Frühe.” Moving. For ten or fifteen years, I’ve called her “a Schwarzkopf for our time,” and I’ve given my reasons. I’m sorry to have missed Schwarzkopf, in the flesh. (Like most of us now, I know her through recordings.) But I’m very glad to have lived in the era of Röschmann.