Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) can leave you an emotional wreck for a week. I once vowed never to hear it again. I broke my vow in order to hear Nina Stemme sing it and I don’t regret it for a moment.
Stemme’s name in Swedish means “voice”. Nearly 20 years ago she wowed Glyndebourne at her role debut as Wagner’s Isolde with the purity, strength and sheer mettle of her sound and today she is probably the greatest Wagnerian soprano of our time. Her recital with pianist Magnus Svensson let us relish an operatic superwoman in an intimate setting, with a programme where every piece could wring us out with its vocal and emotional demands.
Mahler, having lost his own small daughter, writes his heart out, gazing at the space where she no longer walks beside her mother. Besides the bereaved parent’s desperate rationalising, the music references folksong, nursery simplicity and musical boxes, ending in a lullaby of death. Stemme’s account was all the more anguished for its understatement, with a dignity that sent the barbs straight to the heart.
Stemme’s voice now has a seemingly effortless amplitude and an acute cut-and-thrust in the top register (it also serves her perfectly as Brünnhilde in the Ring cycle). But it also has an other-worldly contralto depth: Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder – love songs on words by Mathilde Wesendonck, the woman who inspired his Tristan und Isolde – came out of the shadows in a blaze of radiance.
After a Liszt solo Wagner adaption from the generally self-effacing and empathetic Svensson, the pair – clad in matching burgundy velvet, their only concession from high art to showbiz – turned to the Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch. His song cycle Die geheimnisvolle Flöte (The Mysterious Flute) on poems adapted from the Tang dynasty writer Li Bai, offered finely tuned Art Nouveau-style musical imagination.
Then, finally, came some Kurt Weill, where Stemme stepped through into another world. She became a peerless actor and storyteller, transforming herself into Bertolt Brecht’s protagonists: the young woman of “Surabaya Johnny” destroyed by a love-hate relationship, and the hard-bitten “love market” veteran of “Nanna’s Song”. And in the longing for the imaginary land of dreams, “Youkali”, Stemme paced a build-up of emotional involvement to perfection, unleashing full Brünnhilde-style glories along the way.
This song unified the whole programme: all the songs were, at heart, about longing for the impossible. No less ideally judged was the encore, Weill’s “My Ship”. At such a concert, Youkali does exist: it’s the Wigmore Hall.