Wagner’s music so often sits on its own – such is the Bayreuth master’s art – that the prospect of him sharing the platform with Liszt, his early champion and later father-in-law, seemed appetising. According to the publicity for Janice Watson’s recital, promoted by London’s Wagner 200 festival and titled “Wagner and Liszt”, Liszt’s songs “include some of the most beautiful in the repertoire”, while the programme notes bemoaned the fact that his songs are not performed more often.
So why was Liszt represented by only three songs, and why were Wagner’s immature Lieder unflatteringly juxtaposed with Schumann’s Liederkreis, a masterpiece of the song repertoire? Watson’s first half was a shambles. She swigged water, made excuses for Wagner’s songs (so why perform them?) and began Schumann’s “Lieb’ Liebchen” after the hall alarm started ringing – so the whole song went to waste. She kept looking at the music stand, made next to nothing of the texts and frequently closed her eyes, as if engaged in private practice.
It was still possible to glean that much of Wagner’s early output is derivative. One song is plainly experimental – the text for “Melodram” has to be spoken – and another is incomplete: the piano part for “La tombe dit à la rose” consists of three isolated notes, as if Wagner had stuffed a half-finished song in his drawer and forgotten about it. A few sounded like operatic prototypes. “Tous n’est qu’images fugitives” came across as a dry run for Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), while “Adieux de Marie Stuart” mimics the garrulous joviality of Daland (Der fliegende Holländer).
Things improved in the second half. Watson’s bright, proto-Wagnerian timbre had warmed up, giving her ample purchase on the Wesendonck-Lieder. Her pianist Joseph Middleton stole the show in the meagre Liszt selection – especially the balmy “Bells of Marling” – and it was only in the encore, “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh”, that Liszt’s (and Watson’s) gift for vocal expression became apparent.
The problem with this recital was not so much its sketchiness, as the fact that we learnt nothing – musical or otherwise – about the relationship between two towering figures of 19th-century music.