Edita Gruberova

Mozart, Schubert, Dvořák, Strauss

Wigmore Hall, 22 March 2008 3 stars

Edita Gruberova (Photo: Herve Le Cunff) Edita Gruberova is approaching living legend status, having debuted in Bratislava in 1967, but shooting to fame in 1976 when she played Zerbinetta in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos under Karl Böhm at the Vienna State Opera. Ever since, she has had a serious claim to be the world's number one coloratura soprano. Now in her early 60s, she is inevitably past her prime, but she has a very loyal following and received a very warm reception at this Wigmore Hall recital.

Her experience and self assurance about her own position in the world of classical music is evident in a relaxed and straight forward platform manner, and a certain graciousness with which she regards her audience. Opening her recital with Mozart's Als Luise die Briefe, the beauty of her timbre was immediately striking. It did, however, take her until the third song in the programme before I felt there was enough breath flow and mental engagement with the voice to show us that it remains relatively unscathed by the years.

Gruberova's interpretative style has always been idiosyncratic, and occasionally downright mannered. Her habit of scooping towards notes, or attacking them pianissimo before filling them out, and her tendency to dwell rather on certain consonants has become more pronounced with age. This meant that many of the pieces on the programme suffered from such rather obtrusive vocal gestures, as well as a great deal of dynamic variation, over and above what is necessary or desirable to create a satisfying performance of a work. Gruberova is fond of singing filato at the top, but she occasionally tries to take refuge in this, and it is not wholly successful. In fact, the best singing of the evening came when she really let rip with everything she has. At such moments, she sounded as secure and fresh as she always did, but with even more colour and beauty to the voice than in her youth.

Many of the songs on the programme were sung in such a way that they rather frustrated me, as a consequence of her artistic interventions. Schubert's meltingly beautiful Der Jüngling an der Quelle unfortunately had no line at all, so intent was the singer on playing with consonants, sudden dynamic variations, and moving between notes with an excess of fuss. There was a great deal of holding back, in the name of art, and she rather seemed to tie herself up in knots by so doing. I did feel that, had she given more of herself, piena voce, and trusted more in the beauty of her voice and the quality of the compositions she was singing, she would have come across as quite ageless, secure, utterly on top of her instrument, and thrilling. As it was, she appeared to get in the way of the music and her voice to her own detriment.

There were moments, however, when she did engage fully with the dramatic situation and dish out her extraordinarily beautiful voice with abundance. The section in Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade where she changes from talking about abstract emotion and shifts the emphasis on to Faust's physical allure was very exciting, Gruberova giving everything she had to the exclamation at 'Und ach, sein Kuß!'. She took the same approach to the final verse of the poem with equally wonderful results.

Der Hirt auf dem Felsen was extremely enjoyable in large part thanks to the excellent clarinet playing of Andrew Marriner. His timbre was meltingly beautiful, and absolutely free of any abrasion, even in forte passages. His phrasing rather suited Gruberova's singing, being quite complex and full of original touches, but managing to stay just the right side of mannered, even in the rubato he gave to the closing arpeggiated flourish at the end of the work. Gruberova was mesmerising in the minor, central section beginning 'In tiefem Gram verzehr ich mich…', with far better line than we had heard elsewhere in the concert up to this point, and a beautiful, appropriate pianissimo. Her crescendo where the music turns major again before the closing fast section was very well managed, and, in a very Gruberova way, extremely impressive.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Dvořák group of love songs from Opus 83 were relatively free of mannerisms, and received the best performances of the evening. She was expansive and giving, proving she can still sing a perfect line and perform in an entirely consistent and direct style. It was wonderful to hear her in this music and just enjoy her brilliant instrument, as well as appreciate her excellent dramatic gifts. Her facial expressions and body language were extremely poignant.

This made the Strauss group, which followed the Dvořák and closed the recital, quite a disappointment. She reverted to how she had been in the Mozart and Schubert, but somehow even more so, which led to an unpleasant performance of Die Nacht with intonation problems, less than beautiful tone and no sense of direction to the phrases. Allerseelen and Zueignung were better, but they were not on a par with the Dvořák.

Nevertheless, it was a great experience to hear this singer live, and there were many manifestations during the evening of what made her so special in her prime. Truly, her voice sounds ageless when she is able to let it be and sing in full flight. Although I have been familiar with her through recordings for many years, the unique beauty of her timbre in the concert hall was even more special than I was expecting. She received excellent, if somewhat reserved support from her pianist, Stephan Matthias Lademann, who was standing in at short notice for Friedrich Haider. She commanded the stage with a natural charm and left a very enthusiastic audience clamouring for more.

By John Woods