Lieder Recitals and Texts

A recital at this year’s Buxton Festival, given by soprano Sarah-Jane Lewis and baritone Gareth Brynmor John with pianist Simon Lepper, offered an interesting combination of duets and songs by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. However, an audience cannot appreciate a programme of this kind without understanding at least something of the content of the songs. Ideally, texts with translations should be provided and organisations promoting lieder recitals generally supply these. If they cannot be made available, then a short outline of the song might be printed in the concert programme. In the absence of either, and at the very minimum, the performing artists should introduce the songs, describing their theme or subject-matter. None of these occurred at the recital in question which in consequence was, as far as I was concerned, a waste of time and money. Observing the young singers make efforts to give dramatic significance to their performance was hugely frustrating, because, except for what could be gleaned from the title of the song, we had not the faintest idea what they were singing about. Audiences now rightly demand surtitles in the opera house. The arguments for facilitating their understanding of lieder are even stronger. In the first place, there is no physical, dramatic action to accompany the texts. Secondly, with the rare exceptions of some song cycles, there is no “plot” to link the pieces and thereby provide clues as to textual content. Thirdly, and most importantly, the relationship between words and music tends to be closer, and more specific, than in an opera libretto. Lieder recitals are not simply occasions for making beautiful or exciting vocal sounds. They demand engagement with the emotions and with the intellect and this can come only from an understanding of the text.