Music review: Anne Schwanewilms at Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

PERSEVERING: Anne Schwanewilms surmounted a bad cold at the Terrace Theater.
PERSEVERING: Anne Schwanewilms surmounted a bad cold at the Terrace Theater. (Johanna Peine)
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Monday, February 1, 2010

Illness scuttled Anne Schwanewilms's Vocal Arts Society performance in 2007, so anticipation was high for Saturday night's return engagement. Then came the snow. And another bad cold. But the German soprano persevered and gave the crowd an evening to remember.

That she coughed and drank water periodically throughout the concert at Kennedy Center Terrace Theater only made the achievement all the more remarkable.

Schwanewilms has established herself as one of the world's leading interpreters of the songs by composers Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Indeed, many of the Strauss selections can be found on her highly regarded contribution to the complete recording of the Strauss songs, led by pianist Roger Vignoles on the Hyperion label. Saturday, she sang with the flexibility and self-assurance that comes with familiarity with the score and poetry, more than once transposing or substituting words, a breezy manner that gave idiomatic charm to the performance.

Her voice is ideally suited to the demands of Strauss, capable of transparent lightness at the top, but with enough weight to power through a long phrase. This soft velvet ribbon of sound, given various colors, served to evoke, among other qualities, the anxiety of a boy's beating heart in "Schlagende Herzen," naive sweetness in "Nachtgang" and wintry gloom in "Mein Herz Ist Stumm." Impressive control of upper and lower registers made for seamless connections between them in the last phrase of the lovely "Die Nacht." At times she floated suddenly appearing top notes that just as quickly vanished, and at others, as at the end of "Waldseligkeit," a long-held note bloomed forth softly with exacting precision and grew to a broad volume, all the while remaining pure and bladelike in focus.

The Mahler songs, all settings of the often enigmatic folk poems in "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," offered an even greater range of characterization for Schwanewilms's dramatic skill. Her expressive but ultimately sphinxlike face helped create moods that were coquettish, sultry, bitter, silly, even manic, always engaged without going over the top.

The accomplished accompanist Malcolm Martineau adorned the performance with a warm cloak of supportive sound, helping to cover some of the weaknesses created by poor vocal health and obviously relishing his own solo turns, as in the persistent nightingale's singing at the end of "Ich Ging mit Lust." A single encore, Strauss's "Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen" (Op. 49, No. 8), a setting of a folk poem collected by Curt M√ľndel, further showcased Schwanewilms the actress, who hammed and charmed her way through the hummed refrain.

-- Charles Downey

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