MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Daniela Lehner Roger Vignoles
Viennese waltzing aside, the new year in classical music always gets off to a slow and shell-shocked start, with performers still in recovery from the onslaught of Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios, and venues taking time out from an eternity of Raymond Gubbay carol concerts.
But into that void, by established practice, comes a hopeful caravan of young artists seizing the chance to grab attention while nothing much else is on. At the Southbank Centre, the Park Lane Group takes over the Purcell Room for a showcase week of recitals featuring new British-based talent (much of it not long escaped from college) in new works by living composers. And the Wigmore Hall last week had a song recital by one of the most spectacularly promising, if also problematic, young voices I’ve come across in ages: a young Austrian mezzo by the name of Daniela Lehner.
Lehner’s promise has been obvious to a lot of people and organisations who make it their business to support such things, including the BBC, which has her in its Young Generation scheme, and the Borletti-Buitoni Awards, set up by Mitsuko Uchida to nurture tomorrow’s stars. Some years ago she was among the musicians promoted under the Austrian Cultural Forum’s New Artists series in London; and because I have an involvement with the ACF, I’ve followed her career ever since – encouraged by the late record producer Christopher Raeburn, who had been Decca’s expert on the female voice from Sutherland to Bartoli and who thought Lehner had the potential to join that exalted league. With reason. It’s a totally distinctive voice with an astonishingly solid quality that could be heavygoing but in fact combines with brilliance and dexterity. So far so good.
The problem is that it’s uneven in terms of timbre – the colouring and texture that define a vocal sound – and sometimes to the point of real discomfort for the listener, as it was at the start of this recital when Ms Lehner sang a group of Mozart songs.
Holding down the volume and no doubt a touch nervous, she delivered this Mozart with almost no colour at all: just a raw, drained whiteness that emerged from the back of the throat and would have made anyone hearing her for the first time feel apprehensive.
But then, as the programme rolled on through sequences of Hugo Wolf, Zemlinsky, and the Argentine composers Guastavino and Ginastera, the nerves settled, the voice opened out, and there was everything you could want: excitement, fire, attack – and above all the gloriously smooth, rich and substantial colouring of a potentially great voice. When finally it comes, Ms Lehner’s sound is the sound of the New York Met (and sooner or later James Levine is going to have to hear it); the sound of La Scala, Milan (on a good night); the sound of pure class.
And when it comes, she knows how to use it to advantage. She tells the story of a song as though her life depended on it. And given a text that unfolds in a strongly characterised manner, she’s in her element – delivering the detail with relish and rising to whatever grand gestures the music and text demand, as they do with a vengeance in the abrasive fierceness of the last of Ginastera’s Five Popular Songs (a pounding tarantella of a number where Roger Vignoles delivered impressive keyboard muscle).
But Lehner does poignant beauty with equal effectiveness. Guastavino’s “The Rose and the Willow” is a song scored into my mind from a time when I judged a competition in Buenos Aires and had it sung to me five times a day for a week: it’s something every South American voice wants to do, and does. Relentlessly. That aside, it’s a captivating piece that doesn’t suffer from undue exposure over here. And as Daniela Lehner sang it at the Wigmore, all hearts melted. She had truly won her audience round.
That they needed winning round, after the awkward start, is undoubtedly something that requires attention: she’s reached a critical point in her vocal development and could do with some seriously expert guidance. But if there’s justice in the world, that will happen. This is a precious voice and on the cusp of greatness. It won’t be allowed to go to waste.