Polish contralto Ewa Podles is justly famed for her deep, loud, booming contralto voice, and it has carried her from triumph to triumph over a career lasting more than a quarter of a century. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is certainly no lightweight as a pianist, either; his is one of the most prolifically recorded classical soloists in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries and is justly lauded for his recordings of Chopin, Scriabin, Beethoven, and others. Moreover, he is used to working with Podles; a prior recital recorded in 2003 has already been released by the Dux label in Poland, containing many of the same Chopin and Rachmaninoff songs heard here. That disc contained a selection of Scriabin solo piano works as well, but this Wigmore Hall recital replaces those with Karol Szymanowski's Masques, Op. 34, and adds songs of Tchaikovsky and the cycle Songs and Dances of Death of Mussorgsky.
The Wigmore Hall Live label prides itself on its excellent public recitals and equally terrific recordings of the same. However, there's something deeply boring about their issue Ewa Podles/Garrick Ohlsson. Nothing is more central to Polish song literature than Chopin's songs, but Podles seems to have difficulty maintaining a sense of line; the voice breaks a lot here and there and the sound of it appears to emphasize more heft than beauty. Likewise, Ohlsson's accompaniment sounds pedestrian and dutiful than involved, having a "hamsters on the treadmill" kind of flavor. His solo turn on Szymanowski's Masques is easily the most interesting thing on the program, but the performance has little bite to it, making one wonder if the recording might partly be at fault; it's a bit distant and perhaps the engineer was holding back somewhat to accommodate Podles' big bullhorn of a voice. On the other hand, the Dux disc is even more distantly recorded, but both Podles and Ohlsson seem considerably more involved, impassioned, and on the mark. Who could have figured it; two great artists, incomparably experienced in the literature they are performing and in working together, and yet, a disc that Wigmore Hall might have considered leaving on the shelf? Perhaps it was just an off day. However, something is definitely amiss. Prior to Wigmore Hall's Ewa Podles/Garrick Ohlsson, it could be said that no recording of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death known to this reviewer could ever be considered "boring," and this is not the kind of standard these artists -- nor this label -- should be aspiring to set.