Sunday, 11 September 2011

Maltman/Johnson: 'Friedrich Schiller – Ein Leben in Liedern': Songs by Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt, 10 September 2011

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Elysium, D 584
Der Kampf, D 594
An den Frühling, D 587
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D 583
Das Geheimnis, D 793
Dithyrambe, D 801
Schumann – Der Handschuh, op.87
Schubert – Die Bürgschaft, D 246
Schumann – Des Buben Schützenlied, op.79 no.25
Liszt – Drei Lieder aus Schillers ‘Wilhelm Tell‘, S 292
Schubert – Strophe aus ‘die Götter Griechenlands’, D 677

Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

A recital of Schiller settings from Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson seemed an excellent way to open the Wigmore Hall’s new season, and ample compensation for Soile Isokoski’s indisposition. There was indeed much to admire and to interest, but, with the exception of Liszt’s William Tell settings, Schiller rarely seemed to have provoked the composers concerned to scale the greatest heights. Perhaps that is partly a consequence of the ballad form in which a number of these settings were written: it seems less to speak to us – or at least to me – than various other song forms. But even when the compositional level fell somewhat beneath outstanding, one could enjoy Schiller’s verse. Maltman’s excellent diction was of great importance in that respect: at times, it felt as though we were attending a musically heightened verse reading.

The first half was devoted to Schubert and a single song by Schumann, Der Handschuh. the latter vividly pictorial, Johnson clearly relishing the opportunity to paint tigers and lions. Maltman imparted a keen narrative thrust, even a winning feminine impersonation of Fräulein Kunigund. This 1850 ballad was not, however, to put it mildly, the inspired and inspirational Schumann of his celebrated ‘year of song’. The opening Elysium announced an initially Mozartian Schubert, albeit a little hesitantly at first, though soon turning itself into a full-blown operatic narration, Maltman’s stage experience clearly informing his delivery. When hearing of truth rending the veil (‘Wahrheit reisst hier den Schleier entzwei’), that was just what we heard in the music. A rapt stillness accompanied the grim reaper’s sickle falling from his hand, whilst the ‘Donnerstürme’ looked forward to The Flying Dutchman. Der Kampf, which followed, benefited from a strong sense of musical structure on Johnson’s part, Maltman presented an urgent, masculine reading, again not so far from the opera house. An den Frühling, the second of Schubert’s two settings, was charmingly sung, but there might have been greater sensitivity and shading from the pianist. Gruppe aus dem Tartarus emerged hellish than triumphant, a resounding tribute to the power of Maltman’s voice. Dithyrambe showed that he could be boisterous too, the poet’s cup verily overflowing.

Die Bürgschaft, which I think I last heard in concert in a spellbinding reading from Jonas Kaufmann in Munich, was heard in similar vein to the first-half items: highly dramatic, with an acute sense of verbal poetry and meaning. There was fine shading too, both voice and piano sounding truly silvery on the ‘silberhell’ description of the spring, almost as if we had suddenly exchanged a Steinway for a Bösendorfer and a baritone for a tenor. This may be far from Schubert at his greatest, but Schiller was permitted to sing quite movingly his hymn of Romantic friendship. There followed four songs from William Tell, one by Schumann, three by Liszt. The former’s Des Buben Schützenlied received a good-natured performance, but the piano opening to Liszt’s ‘Der Fischerknabe’ immediately announced a new level not only of piano writing, but also of compositional inspiration. Even in the hands of a less than first-rank Lisztian – there are times when Johnson sounds a little too much of an ‘accompanist’ – the composer’s figurations and harmonies cast their seductive magic spells. Maltman evinced a seemingly instinctive command of Liszt’s idiom, including his post-Schubertian harmonic shifts. (Intonation had not always been the strongest card earlier on, but there were no such problems here.) The seduction from the watery depths – ‘Lieb’ Knabe, bist mein! – could hardly have been resisted by anyone, certainly not by me. The pastoral setting, ‘Der Hirt’ struck a winning kinship with Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, whilst sounding utterly characteristic of Liszt. The final song, ‘Der Alpenjäger’ is less interesting, but its closeness to the dramatic Schubert settings heard earlier provided its own programming justification. Finally, as an epilogue, came Schubert’s Strophe aus ‘die Götter Griechenlands’, in which at last the heart-rending feeling of loss that Schubert uniquely can summon was to be heard, somehow presaging the twin worlds both of the song-cycles and of the Moments musicaux. Eliza Butler’s Tyranny of Greece over Germany seemed more æsthetically justified – whatever Schiller’s steadfast resistance to political tyranny – than ever.  

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