2017-12-28 — Original posting
Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2017-12-19
Reto Knöpfel, Leticia Kahraman, Andrea Wiesli
Christmas Concert “Bei Menschen, welche Liebe fühlen“
Lied and Aria Duets by
Schumann / Brahms / Mendelssohn / Mozart / Dvořák / Rossini / Lehár
This was not just the last concert in 2017 in the series of “Musik an der ETH“, but it also was the last one in the venerable Semper-Aula at the ETH in Zurich for a while, as the venue is being renovated next year. As in previous years, the concert before the festive days, “Christmas Concert” was somewhat different from the ordinary piano, duo or other chamber music recitals. This time, there were two young singers in the early stages of their careers, accompanied by a pianist:
Leticia Kahraman, Soprano
Leticia Kahraman received her vocal education from the Hochschule der Künste in Bern. 2010 – 2012, during the second part of her studies, she was also a member of the Swiss Opera Studio in Biel. After attending numerous master classes and winning a number of prizes at competitions, she has now started a career as concert singer.
Reto Knöpfel, Bass-Baritone
Reto Knöpfel finished his vocal studies in 2015, at which point he received a grant from The Bayreuth Festival. He is since pursuing a career as oratorio and Lied singer.
Andrea Wiesli, Piano
The pianist Andrea Wiesli did her studies with Yukio Oya in Munich, thereafter at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts), with Galina Vracheva and Konstantin Scherbakov. She completed her education through masterclasses with Rudolf Buchbinder, Paul Badura-Skoda, Robert Levin, and Christian Favre. Andrea Wiesli has since been appearing as concert soloist in several European countries. She is also working as Lied accompanist, and she is active in chamber music, as a member of the Trio Fontane, as duo partner, and as member of bigger formations. On top of that, in 2016, Andrea Wiesli received a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Zurich.
A General Note on the SIngers
It is always tricky to comment on young talents. Criticizing artists at this early stage in their career may sound harsh, maybe patronizing. That is certainly not my intent. After all, I have gone through some voice training myself, and I know how hard it is to get and keep a voice in shape, to avoid excess strain, especially in cold weather, to fight stage anxiety. On the other hand, I want the review to be sincere, to represent the listener’s (my) experience in the concert. So, it would be pointless to pretend that we had been listening to the mature voices of top-of-the-line singers, in an attempt maybe to save the singers from criticism, or to embellish the listening experience in the aftermath. Neither of this would render any service to the artists.
Both voices in this concert are young, and therefore still in a stage where the voices are physically strongly evolving. At the same time, the artists are still learning how best to use their voice, how to make it fit into a soundscape. At the same time, their musical understanding (and perception) is evolving, too. Also, for a young singer it is hard to estimate how well his/her voice is projecting, how it fits into the musical environment, how, and whether it mixes with other voices. And: I do not claim to be an expert in vocal technique. Please keep in mind that my comments are just my own, personal opinion.
The Christmas Concert ran under the title “Bei Menschen, welche Liebe fühlen” (adapted from the title of a duet from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte“, see the last item in the regular program below). The music consisted of Lieder and Lied duets (first part, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn), as well as duets and arias from opera and operettas. As always in this venue, the piano was a Steinway D-274 concert grand (in excellent condition, as usual). The lid was half-closed. Unlike in bigger venues, the piano was at the level of the 99 seats in the audience, the singers were performing in the limited space of 3 – 4 meters between the piano and the first row of seats.
Part I: Lied Duets
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
The evening started with four duets by Robert Schumann, from two collections:
- The “Spanisches Liederspiel“ (Spanish song cycle), op.74, is a collection of 5 duets, 3 Lieder, and two quartets from 1849, all translated from Spanish sources. The most famous among these is the last one, a Lied for baritone in the appendix, “Der Contrabandiste“, a “Spanish romance” (Yo que soy contrabandista). In that concert, the singers chose the first item in op.74, the Duet “Erste Begegnung“ (First Encounter, originally Dal rosal vengo, mi madre), originally for soprano and alto voices.
- This was followed by the 3 Duets, op.43 from 1840:
- “Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär’“ (If I was a little bird)
- “Herbstlied“ (Autumn song): “Das Laub fällt von den Bäumen” (Dead leaves are falling from the trees), after a poem by Siegfried August Mahlmann (1771 – 1826)
- “Schön Blümelein“ (Sweet flower): “Ich bin hinaus gegangen des Morgens in the Früh” (I went out early in the morning), after a poem by Robert Reinick (1805 – 1852)
“Erste Begegnung“, op.74/1 bears some close (rhythmic and harmonic) resemblance to the famous “Der Contrabandiste“: it’s far from Lieder such as Schubert’s, also in its atmosphere. This song gave a first impression about the voices that we were going to hear that evening. Though, of course, one should be cautious about judging the beginning of a concert: the singers need to adjust their voices to the venue, and as a listener, one first needed to get “into” the music, the voices. The 3 duets from op.43 confirmed that first impression—within the confinements of Schumann’s duet setting, though:
The Voices & Schumann’s Duets
Already from its pitch, Leticia Kahraman’s voice dominates over that of the bass-baritone. In addition, she clearly has more experience, her voice has grown over the first years of her career, and so she presented a substantially bigger volume that Reto Knöpfel, whose voice must still be developing. Also, the soprano used a relatively dramatic vibrato, which further helped her voice to dominate. On top of that, Schumann used the two voices in parallel, note-by-note, which really squeezed the less conspicuous baritone voice between the soprano and the piano accompaniment, leaving little chance for the baritone to gain profile.
As for the accompaniment: Schumann’s Lieder aren’t pianistic showpieces. So, the best I can say about Andrea Wiesli’s part is that she was a very attentive accompanist, giving excellent support to the singers, following their agogics. Despite her efforts to keep the accompaniment as such, she could not prevent the duets to sound like Lieder for soprano and piano, with the baritone squeezed somewhere in-between. The exception was op.43/3, where one definitely noticed Reto Knöpfel’s warm voice. The vocal balance was best in this duet. To be fair, one should note that Schumann wrote all these duets for soprano and alto voice. The combination of soprano and (bass-)baritone is not ideal here.
The duet op.74, as well as the beginning of the duets op.43 are somewhat restrained in their expression, mostly staying in minor tonalities—until op.43/2 opens up towards the end, to a more romantic and warm expression, at which point also the singers appeared to evolve into a bigger tone, before the duet moves into a calm ending. The warmest, the most gentle, accessible and friendly of these duets was No.3, “Schön Blümelein“; this had the soprano in a lower register, giving the baritone a chance for more presence. It must be for good reasons that Schumann put this duet into the last position!
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Next, the artists chose two duets from the “Drei Duette“ for (originally) soprano, alto and piano, op.20, which Johannes Brahms published in 1861:
- Not performed: “Weg der Liebe“, Part I (Way of Love), “Über die Berge, über die Wellen” after a poem from the collection “Stimmen der Völker in Liedern” by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744 – 1803)
- “Weg der Liebe“, Part II, “Den gordischen Knoten, den Liebe sich band“
- “Die Meere“ (The Seas) after an Italian poem
The two Brahms duets suffered the same “deficiency” as those by Schumann: mostly parallel voices, moving in thirds and sixths. And also these are meant for soprano and alto, which would make them more balanced. The songs themselves are very nice and atmospheric. However, I definitely found that a lyrical soprano (with less vibrato) would have been preferable here, and less volume would have been enough on her part. More than once in these two duets I found her (relatively) heavy vibrato to affect the intonation. Especially op.20/2 would have profited from less volume and more dynamic variation.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)
The Lied / duet part concluded with compositions by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
- Three of the Six Songs for two voices and piano, op.63:
- “Ich wollt’ meine Lieb’ ergösse sich“ after a poem by Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856)
- “Gruß“ (“Wohin ich geh’ und schaue, in Feld und Wald und Tal“) from 1844, after a poem by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788 – 1857)
- “Volkslied“ (“O säh’ ich auf der Heide dort im Sturme dich“) from 1842, using a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810 – 1876) after Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) (“Oh wert thou in the cauld blast”)
- the three folk songs (3 Volkslieder), WoO 11:
- From the 3 Lieder for two voices and piano, op.77 from 1836 – 1847:
- “Lied aus Ruy Blas“, (“Wozu der Vögel Chöre belauschen fern und nah?“) after a text by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885)
Mendelssohn’s op.63 is written for two soprano voices, hence the transfer of soprano II to a male voice puts that at a baritone (rather than bass) level. Consequently, the two voices were more balanced here. In addition, Mendelssohn inserted short solo bars every now and then, which allows both voices to get some profile. op.63/3 is almost too sweet and harmonious, with the voices consequently note against note, in thirds and sixths. Overall, the three duets in op.63 were richer in expression and dynamic bandwidth than the preceding duets by Schumann and Brahms. And the singing was more lyrical, more balanced: nice music!
In the three folk songs (WoO 11), Mendelssohn wrote both voices in G key, but left it open whether to use sopranos, two tenors, of soprano+tenor. These songs are simpler in texture and content. Duet No.1 is somewhat melancholic, No.2 is a nice evensong. In both, the voices were much more balanced, and so far, Reto Knöpfel had the best opportunity to present his soft, warm timbre. No.3 goes a bit beyond that, with segments that sound almost like a ballad, featuring dialogs between the two voices, with typical “Mendelssohnian” accompaniment.
The duet op.77/3 was the shortest of all (none of the duets was more than 2.5 minutes). Over that first part of the recital, the two voices gradually found to a balanced performance. A mutual balance, but also probably one in “finding into the venue, the acoustics”. The soprano had become more lyrical, the baritone approached a vocal presence close to that of the soprano. And the audience was now “into” this music, in the spirit of the duet recital, and ready for the opera segment after the intermission.
Maybe somebody should have told the audience not to applaud aver each and every duet?
Part II: Opera, Operetta (Duets, Arias)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
The opera segment started with duets and an aria from Mozart’s operas:
- from the Opera “Le nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro), K.492:
- “Cinque, dieci, venti“ (Five, ten, twenty), the duet Susanna & Figaro from Act I
- “Non più andrai“ (No more gallivanting), Figaro‘s aria, also from Act I
- From the Opera “Don Giovanni“, K,527:
- “Là ci darem’ la mano“ (There we will entwine our hands), the duet Zerlina & Don Giovanni, from Act I
The character of the presentation altered completely with the switch to arias and duets from opera. Even though it wasn’t “real” opera on-stage, but merely a semi-scenic production (no scenery, generic costumes), the acting, the gestures added to the “stage presence” of the two singers.
Reto Knöpfel profited from this, in several ways, especially in the Mozart pieces. The acting doesn’t make the voice any bigger (rather to the contrary, maybe), but psychologically, it enhanced the “stage presence”, in that for the listener, it offers the richer experience, and from the singer’s point-of-view, it helps the self-confidence, may free additional vocal forces. Especially, as the baritone’s role in all Mozart pieces was that of the opera’s protagonist. On top of that, the duets are set for individual roles, i.e., anything but note-by-note parallel parts. And of course, Mozart’s superb mastership helped: he invented melodies that suite the voice, are easy to sing, and yet are catchy and have the greatest effect with the audience.
Indeed, Knöpfel’s voice / volume and presence appeared to have gained tremendously compared to the Lied part: it almost felt as if he had just only discovered his voice! Sure, the voice still needs to grow over the coming years. Still, I liked his mellow timbre, and the fact that he did not use an excess of vibrato. Leticia Kahraman didn’t really need that “enhancement through acting”. Plus, in the two duets, she was in minor roles (compared to the protagonist). And, to be fair, she had plenty of exposure and presence in the Lied part.
The way she adapted her part to the two singers, Andrea Wiesli proved an experienced accompanist: her part was inconspicuous in the best sense of the word—well done!
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
Mozart was followed by the famous “Song to the Moon” (“Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém“), the aria of Rusalka, the water-nymph, from Act I of the Opera “Rusalka”, op.114
This aria is the highlight from Dvořák’s opera! Leticia Kahraman sang this in Czech language (I can’t judge how close / correct the pronunciation was), and this role allowed her to deploy her voice: it seemed bigger than before, and her timbre (and the vibrato) seemed to fit the music. In fact, at times, her voice seemed almost too big for this small venue! Only the climax, the high B♭ in the final cadence, appeared a little pressed / pushed.
Needless to say: the music is beautiful. It’s for good reason that this aria is known even to people who don’t go to the opera.
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868)
Next, the artists selected a piece from Rossini’s Opera “Semiramide”: Assur‘s cabaletta “Que’ Numi furenti, Quell’ ombre fremente“ (“Those wrathful gods, those quivering shades”), from Act II
From his presentation in this concert, I would think that Reto Knöpfel is better at singing opera than Lied. On the other hand, the roles of Figaro and Don Giovanni seemed to fit his voice better than that of Assur in Rossini’s aria. The lowest notes seemed to reach the end of his vocal range. As stated, Knöpfel’s voice still needs (and has the potential) to grow. Could it be that at this point, the voice was showing signs of exhaustion, or was this rather a sign of a slight indisposition? Avoiding over-stress and exhaustion is something singers learn, as their experience grows.
The accelerando in the second part (possibly the tempo changes in general) did not feel quite natural: accelerating in music is far trickier than one might think! Plus, doing this through an orchestral score that is condensed onto a piano doesn’t make this easier at all. When a conductor does this with an orchestra, the inertia of the ensemble automatically slows down or delays acceleration. Therefore, on a real stage situation, “unnatural” tempo changes are far less likely to occur.
Franz Lehár (1870 – 1948)
Besides three operas, Lehár wrote mostly operettas. “Giuditta” is a musical comedy in 5 scenes. Here, we heard the best-known piece, Giuditta‘s aria “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß“ from Scene 4.
With this, we definitely moved towards the “lighter muse”, music that is less demanding as a composition (but which may therefore reach a different / wider audience?). The melodies are simpler (but catchy and effective), and so are the harmonies, the texture of the score. But it is pleasant music, sure. This being the last concert of the year, one can hardly oppose the inclusion of operetta music in this program!
That said: even though the melody may not be overly demanding (in terms of intonation, etc), this does not imply that they are easy to sing. This aria suited Leticia Kahraman’s voice well, even though the ideal voice for this might be a tad lighter?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
For the conclusion of the official part of the concert, the artists returned to Mozart, for the piece that was chosen as a motto for the entire evening: from the Opera “Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”), K.620, the love duet Pamina & Papageno from Act I, “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen“ (for the motto of the concert, a gender-neutral version of the text was chosen).
This is one of the highlights from Mozart’s opera, and an excellent closure for the concert: not demanding, catchy, and “in the right spirit”! For my personal taste, though, Leticia Kahraman’s soprano voice was maybe a little heavy / loaded for the role of Pamina?
Franz Lehár (1870 – 1948)
The first one of the encores was taken from Franz Lehár’s most famous Operetta “Die lustige Witwe“ (The Merry Widow): “Lippen schweigen“ (Lips keep quiet), the duet Hanna & Danilo from Act III. The melody is (feels) well-known (I’m sure I have heard that several times in my youth, on the radio, sung by then famous operetta stars. Some of the preceding music (especially the Lied part) made this sound close to a caricature. However, it was an encore, and it was the concert leading into the festive days…
Engelbert Humperdinck (1854 – 1921)
Humperdinck’s best-known composition is the Opera “Hänsel und Gretel“. The evening ended with the well-known “Abendsegen“ (Evening Prayer) by the two protagonists, from Act II. A last “cherry pick” was closing the evening: yes, it was simple music, but still a nice invention by Humperdinck.
Thanks to the three artists for a nice, enjoyable evening!
All photos © Rolf Kyburz, 2017, All rights reserved