In the course of the 19th century the designation “virtuoso” become an often ambiguous compliment, if not a downright backhanded one. The word began to refer increasingly to technical prowess that came necessarily at the expense of truly “musical”—that is, expressively convincing, and artistically authentic—performance. The rock-star-like legends of 19th-century concert life, chief among them Paganini and Liszt, were frequently pilloried for their pyrotechnical brilliance, which sought to amaze the listener rather than move him, or, more often, her.
Given these connotations, few notice that “virtue” forms the root of virtuoso. Before virtuosity was hijacked, writers on music, especially in 18th-century stressed the ethical obligations of musicians, the best and most complete of whom were recognized as virtuosos. In ideal terms, such musicians pursued their art not for personal aggrandizement and the adulation of mobs of fans, but rather for the common good. Surely they should be monetarily compensated for the years of practice and subsequent professional dedication, but enrichment through music was meant to flow from them to others, rather than the reverse. These virtuosos had to be able to play, when called upon, to play with high-speed accuracy—though not as fast and frenzied as later demons of the violin and piano would—but their main purpose in performance was moving the heart and uplifting the spirit.
In the age of the star diva, the pop star, the conductor who assembles vast wealth and gathers conducting posts like far-flung colonies, virtuosity in this older sense is rare. This is not to say that such musical figure do not do their bit of social outreach, do the charity fundraisers, and devout their time to education.
The older notion of virtuosity—of connecting directly to people in often intimate performing environments such as the salon, the small hall, or even the living room or street—is worth of resurrecting. Virtuosity was taken hostage of celebrity. Virtue is now rarely seen as fundamental a musical value.
Though I know only a small corner of the Berlin soprano Annette Dasch’s wide-ranging musical activities, her kind of music-making strikes me as particularly happy return, in an unexpected 21st-century form, to an older form of virtuosity. With characteristic grace, thoughtfulness, humor, musical beauty, and never-self-seeking technical prowess, she demonstrated this in last Friday’s concert in the small concert hall of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, where a sold-out audience of devoted followers joined her for an evening of early 19th-century song. Indeed, in such concerts and in her hugely popular, televised Dasch-Salons, one feels not like a bystander—a listener and watcher—but like a participant in the event, even if one is not singing along, as one does at the just-mentioned salons, often to the accompaniment of Dasch voice and her guitar.
Given her stunning talent and training, she might have trodden what has become a more traditional path towards success. In 2000, at the age of twenty-five, she won three major international singing competitions—the Maria Callas Competition in Barcelona, the Schumann Lieder Competition in Zwickau , and the Geneva Competition. Numerous European appearances and a host of recordings ensued. Still committed to the musical scene of her native city—hardly a musical backwater— she pursued frequent collaborations with the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, with whom she made a 2004 recording of German Baroque songs. It is an endlessly delightful collection that ranks as one my favorite CD of all time.
The final track, “Wol dem der sich vergnügt” by the central German composer Johann Krieger active in the generation before J. S. Bach, is a disarmingly simple song that proclaims the joys of happiness unencumbered by money and societal convention. Dasch’s performance, backed by this Berlin early music ensemble that is among the very best in the world, embodies the young soprano’s musical virtuosity. The surety of her intonation, the ease of her figuration, the ingenuity of her ornamentation, the richly varied expressive range that she brings to each verse all demonstrate the qualities that have won her the musical affection of expert judges and amateur admirers. But beyond this, what one wins one over on every listening is the verve, creativity, intelligence, and above all, warmth of what she does, as if her abundant efforts to delight are truly for the moral refreshment of the listener’s spirit—as the title-pages of so many collections of songs from the period.
Hers is a virtuosity of warmth that draws one to it like a crackling fireplace in a rustic living room or a brightly sung tune in a sunny meadow. Though extraordinary in its surety and expressive nuance, this is music-making that welcomes you in, rather than distances itself from the everyday through blatant bravura. Moment of unforgettable charm come in the midst of the carefree song, when Dasch whistles with perfect intonation and insouciant phrasing—a lighthearted musical soliloquy of the unfettered wondering. Later a piccolo recorder follows her lead, and she then hums a verse in a perfect expression of musical contentment. The memorable coda in has the members of baroque band itself join in with the Dasch in singing the refrain, as if to acknowledge that her tuneful virtues are utterly irresistible. Everyone—even the cynics in the band—feels better having heard her insights into the good and simple life. Dasch is more than just a singer—or for that matter a whistler—but also a musician with mind and purpose.
The Dasch-Salons, running since 2008, are likewise dedicated to dismantling borders and welcoming the unexpected. The appearance of her Berlin friend, Celine Bostic on the show back in 2009 is a case in point. Bostic is a pop singer who, among her own diverse activities, has contributed to rap albums under the dark moniker Bo$$ Berlin Bitch. As Dasch’s introduction of her long-time friend put it, Bostic had agreed for the first time to perform a piece of “so-called classical music”—a duet by Mendelssohn. Dasch’s adjective “so-called” was both pointed and gracious. She treats convention with the right sort of disrespect: the power of performance comes in reaching people, in persuading them, and making them feel that they are fellow travelers on the joint journey of experiment and discovery. The result not only showed that Bostic is more than merely a studio fabrication, and that can really can sing. The duet the friends performed also demonstrated that much unexploited power of “classic” music lies in its capacity to embrace two modern musicians ostensibly engaged in very different realms. Beauty transcends genre.
These same qualities warmed the Gendermemarkt chamber hall in Berlin last Friday night. Though Dasch has a wide repertoire that extends from early to contemporary song, and from cantatas to lieder to opera, her way of thinking and performing seems at least partly governed by what I would call an early music sensibility. Her programs have an argument, a thesis; they demonstrate something without being pedantic. They also show by shining counter-example just how dire the potluck song recital is when served up by a singer who uses each new dish as a way of flaunting his or her mastery of a given style, affect, or sung language. The fare is meant less to please than overwhelm the listener with good taste. The spread is extremely unappetizing.
By delicious contrast, Dasch’s most recent recital took as its theme representations of sounding strings (harp, lyre, lute, strummed chords and plucked music) in poetry and song around 1800. Rather than just collect a range of such pieces, she turned to Björn Colell, lute and theorbo player of the same Berlin Academy for Early Music, and asked him about the musical background for such metaphors. He then informed her of a rich repertoire for voice and guitar by the likes of Carl Maria von Weber, Mauro Giuliani, Fernando Sor, and their younger contemporary Franz Schubert. Colell brought with him to the project a copy of an early 19th-century guitar, an instrument that can be gentle, urgent, irreverent or glinting—ranging from nimble figuration and ornament to amorous serenade or consoling lullaby. Rather than simply leaving plucked strings as an abstraction, Dasch presented them on the stage. This is more than a clever idea, but converts the metaphor into sounding reality and opens up unexpected musical possibility.
The association of the guitar is inevitably with Iberia, a connection made manifest in the songs of one of the age’s greatest virtuosos. Fernando Sor. Dasch and Colell’s reading of the Spaniard’s four Suegidillas—arch little numbers that turn on a clever, often off-color, joke or image—showed her talent for the musical wink and the coy aside. This is quality music, but it thrives only under the aegis real performers able to sparkle and sulk, bask in pathos or slash with sardonic wit.
The German songs of the Italian traveling guitarist Giuliani, who eventually found favor in the Imperial court in Vienna, were shrouded in northern gloom that resonated somewhere inside with southern warmth. The poignant between minor and major in “Farewell” (Abschied) conveyed powerfully the way goodbye is both a beginning and an end—and also a rehearsal for death. Colell is fine accompanist, supportive yet picking his spots in which to shine. Dasch too knows when to get the most out of the abundant pathos offered in such songs, and also when to recede into nothingness and let the fragile guitar chords say what has to be said with their dying echo. Colell’s playing was an invitation to Dasch to find the softest most intimate registers of her infinitely expressive voice. The original guitar song “Comfort in Tears” (Trost in Tränen) to a text by Goethe gave the pair the chance to show that Schubert’s understanding of emotional loss has a unique profundity. In this world of interior emotion shared with others, the slight quaver, the hesitant gasp, the breathy articulation, the pure pianissimo, or the suddenly urgent crescendo can be devastating. But even in such poignant musical moments, it is hard not to smile at Dasch musical talents—her conviction and expressive nuance.
The second half of the program was devoted to Schubert songs, but now accompanied by the piano, and not a wooden one like those known to the composer himself, but a modern Steinway in all its hulking glory. Charged with evoking the harp and lyre from this mighty beast was young James Baillieu, and he duly proved himself capable of conjuring from it feathered arpeggios and nimbus-like chords. Unlike the less well-known repertoire early on the program, Dasch sang the Schubert from memory, and her physical talent for conveying the changing emotional hues of this sung poetry matches her vocal sensitivity. When her voice almost broke in a song depicting the end of love (Liebesend), one could be assured that this effect was intentional, and not the result of a long and demanding program.
The penultimate, “Death Music” (Todesmusik) ecstatically evokes dying in heavenly major harmonies. The approachability and humanity of Dasch’s voice, centered as it is on the deliver of the poetry rather than on the overcoming of vocal difficulties, becomes a vessel of transcendence. The final song on the program—later followed by two encores, one with piano the other with guitar—was fittingly “To Music” (An die Musik), with Baillieu coaxing solace from the piano with its repeated triads, and Dasch presenting a forthright hymn to the heavenly chord to be heard in better times to come. She makes devotion to music and the comfort it offers sound like the most natural thing in this world or the next. That Dasch so masterfully delivered this ambitious, illuminating, uplifting program while six months pregnant marks another of her contributions to the new virtuosity. Indeed, as Schubert’s music progmises, there are better times to come, as long as the next concert by Annette Dasch glows on the twilit horizon.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org