Ladies of the Lake - Rob Gonsalves
Ladies of the Lake - Rob Gonsalves
I talked some time ago about clichés that describe Art Song as a second-class genre performed by second-class singers and second-class pianists. It's all nonsense, of course. I remembered that post while reading an interview with the baritone Christian Gerhaher. He was asked about the differences between opera and lied and he spoke about the length of Winterreise. As we all know, this cycle lasts about seventy minutes performed without pauses while most of opera participations are shorter (Ian Bostridge also refers to that in his book about Winterreise and says that it's also one of the longest works for pianists).

As a result of Gerhaher and Bostridge reflections, I thought again about a post on those mistakes that singers make with song texts. A friend triggered the idea. He was surprised when a singer began a song, then stopped after the first phrase and asked the pianist to start all over again. When I realized how surprised my friend was (because of the situation and also, because it didn't bother me at all), at first I thought of talking about it on a post but then, I discarded it as it could have been understood as a criticism against singers. That was a long time ago; now I'm talking about mistakes because I hope that you readers already know me well enough to understand that it won’t’ at all be a criticism, very much the opposite.

As I said to my friend, singers occasionally have a lapse with the lyrics and nobody minds. I would say it's not just my opinion, I've never noticed any sign of displeasure towards the singer in that very moment or at the end of the recital. I can’t tell why they slip the words but I always thought, maybe because I am easily distracted, that the main difficulty for a singer in a recital is to stay focused to control so many things for so long. I think (of course, I could be wrong) that singers make mistakes with the lyrics basically because they get distracted. It’s nothing to do with their professional experience; I won't mention any names but the examples I will give you later are about very professional singers with broad experience.

I've noticed that most slips occur in the beginning of the recital, when the singer is usually more nervous, and by the end, especially when long cycles are performed. A typical case is Winterreise, as if the singer, tired after so long and aware he's about to end, relaxes his vigilance. A particular example: last season I attended a Winterreise where the singer made a mistake exactly at the last verse, almost at the last note. And what if the mistake happens in the middle of the song and it's too late to stop? A few years ago, I heard a singer singing a gorgeous Liebst du um Schönheit. Really gorgeous. One of those performances that you remember for years. Few months later the recital was broadcasted on the radio; I was listening to that song and at the last verse of the third stanza... what the hell (sorry!) he said!? It's easy (or not so easy, in fact): The singer made a mistake, he had started to sing the verse corresponding to the first stanza; he corrected himself on the way and finished with the right words. I didn't realize at the concert hall, which is pretty funny because I was very attentive and also, I know the song very well; I wouldn't be talking about it now if I hadn’t heard the radio. So I guess that most mistakes remain unnoticed. Sometimes you don't hear what you expect to hear and after the recital, you talk about that with someone else who might agree or disagree. That is, among their many skills, singers and pianists (especially pianists, but that would be the subject for another post) can conceal their mistakes and still, deliver a great performance. Hats off to them.

Those mistakes are only relevant during a recital; when the singer goes wrong at the recording studio, he can repeat all over again. However, some weeks ago, a German friend made me realized how a German singer was wrong twice, at the same word, while singing a Schumann's Lied, in such a way that changed the meaning of the sentence. How curious, don't you think? How can it be possible and then, nobody during recording and production stages realize it?

I said that I wouldn't mention any names but now I should talk about this weeks’s song... Anyway, I'm not sure what I’m about to explain is a mistake. The singer is the great Fritz Wunderlich and the song the beautiful Nachtstück by Schubert. As always, the poem (by Johann Baptist Mayrhofer) is below; I marked in bold the text that Wunderlich omits, a whole musical unity. When I first heard it, I thought it was a slip because it is a usual case, similar to the one of Liebst du um Schönheit: when the music repeats, it's easier to slip the text. But there's another recording, also live, where Wunderlich omits the same verses. If it's a mistake it's very internalized! Could it be a voluntary omission? The whole poem is sang in all the versions I know. Wether it's a mistake or it's voluntary, Fritz Wunderlich's Nachtstück is magnificent; here it is, as he sang it in Edinburgh in September 1966 accompanied by Hubert Giesen.

Wenn über Berge sich der Nebel breitet
Und Luna mit Gewölken kämpft,
So nimmt der Alte seine Harfe, und schreitet
Und singt waldeinwärts und gedämpft:
„Du heilge Nacht:
Bald ist’s vollbracht,
Bald schlaf ich ihn, den langen Schlummer,
Der mich erlöst von allem Kummer.“

Die grünen Bäume rauschen dann:
„Schlaf süss, du guter, alter Mann“;
Die Gräser lispeln wankend fort:
„Wir decken seinen Ruheort“;
Und mancher liebe Vogel ruft:
„O lass ihn ruhn in Rasengruft!“
Der Alte horcht, der Alte schweigt,
Der Tod hat sich zu ihm geneigt.

When over the mountains mist is spread,
and Luna battles against the clouds,
then the old man takes his harp and strides
toward the forest, singing in a subdued voice:
"You holy night:
soon it will be over,
soon I shall sleep the long sleep
that will free me from every torment."

The green trees then murmur:
"Sleep sweetly, you good, old man..."
The grasses whisper as they wave:
"We will cover his place of rest..."
And many a lovely bird calls:
"O let him rest in his grassy tomb!"
The old man hears, the old man is silent;
Death has leaned toward him.


(translation © by Emily Ezust)

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