In a Vocal Arts DC recital at the University of the District of Columbia on Thursday, a program of richly expressive, late-Romantic art songs by Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf suited soprano Anne Schwanewilms’s strengths uncommonly well. She’s famed for her shimmering upper voice and spun-sugar high notes, but Schwanewilms’s tangier, more forthright middle and lower registers proved just as distinctive, as did her word-specific treatment of song texts.
She is very much in the tradition of the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a soprano who calibrated her seductive tone and weighted her words the way a brilliant artist mixes and layers paint. Schwanewilms may lack her predecessor’s near-obsessive degree of character detail in interpreting songs, but she also steers clear of what some felt was a certain mannered preciousness in Schwarzkopf’s performances. Schwanewilms’s approach is more understated, but no less telling.
At Thursday’s recital, in singing scaled down to an intimate volume, myriad small details were teased out of the songs, by an evocative lingering on a word, say, or a sudden hush drawn over a confessional phrase, or a sensual slide between notes when referencing an absent lover. The songs all dealt with love — its sweet torture, its multifaceted reflections in nature and, in Strauss’s Shakespeare-based “Three Songs of Ophelia,” its madness. Schwanewilms found nuanced differentiation among all the lovelorn protagonists given voice here.
If there was a pervading sense of micro-managerial vocal control on the soprano’s part, it paid dividends, and she was able to let her hair down, too — as in her wry treatment of Strauss’s “Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen.” And when she bathed songs such as Wolf’s “Verborgenheit: Lass, o Welt, o lass mich sein” and Strauss’s “Die Nacht” and “Morgen” in silvery floated tone, the results were ravishing. Her unfailingly elegant and insightful pianist Malcolm Martineau proved a sterling partner all evening.