Monday 2 November 2009

Maltman/Johnson - Die schöne Müllerin, 2 November 2009

Wigmore Hall

Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Only a few weeks ago, I heard Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis perform Die schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall. Despite the many virtues of Lewis’s performance, I did not find that Padmore’s approach was for me. This performance, however, from Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson, was quite outstanding. Not least of its virtues was a keen sense of the work as a whole: fluid, through composed, with or without breaks between songs, and with a clear, yet subtle dramatic trajectory. Johnson’s lengthy experience with this cycle, indeed with all of Schubert’s and many other composers’ songs, told, as did Maltman’s combination of natural ability with Lieder and dramatic experience from the operatic stage. The latter’s sheer beauty of tone, never more so than in the final stanza of Wohin!, was never an end in itself, but it was finely deployed and much appreciated.

Das Wandern began as sprightly, as full of hope, of expectation in both parts as I can recall, Maltman every inch the lusty lad with ideas of himself as a journeyman. As early as Wohin!, the second song, Johnson ensured that one could almost see, certainly feel, the brook as a constant background and frequent dramatic participant. The imploring tone of our hero in Danksagung an den Bach, ‘have I understood you?’ he asks the brook, already betokened unease, though things could go either way, or indeed in many directions. And by the time that work was over, in Am Feierabend, both musicians hinted, and sometimes more than hinted, at the danger to come. If only ... the fair maid of the mill might witness his love. But would she? Could she?

Der Neugierige took us further, though also drew us back. The sparseness of the musical delivery in the first two stanzas ensured that the words could take centre stage, but the harmony continued to do the musical work, preparing us for the melodic desolation of love in the third and fifth. One almost wanted to tell the hero to stop now, but one also knew that it would be hopeless to do so, a predicament underlined by the ardent way in which he leaned into ‘Dein’ during the following song, Ungeduld. Anger and frustration increased as that song reached its conclusion. Yet ever more Maltman engaged our sympathy, employing his head voice to infinitely touching effect in Des Müllers Blumen. The apparent triumph of Mein! was clearly to be heard, but we knew that it was deluded, as did Johnson and Maltman. That the devastation of Winterreise was only round the corner was pointed up by Johnson’s shaping of the bass line in Pause. And Der Jäger showed, through absolute musical control on both musicians’ part, that everything was getting out of hand, that madness had descended.

That song proved a bridge to Eifersucht und Stolz, in which we found ourselves in quite a new world, that of almost Pierrot-like expressionism: truly terrifying. The deathly calm with which Maltman continued, in Die liebe Farbe, was no less so, looking already towards the grave, likewise the insistence of Johnson’s piano part. In the song’s dreadful colouristic counterpart, Die böse Farbe, Maltman could speak with a wisdom born, if not of age, then of telescoped experience; it chilled to the bone. Noises off from outside the hall might have derailed a lesser performance, but Trockne Blumen would not let one go, its quiet inexorability quite gripping. (It is all very well, and quite right, that the Wigmore Hall should counsel against coughing, but disturbance from the entrance can be just as disturbing.)

By the penultimate song, Der Müller und der Bach, we were unmistakeably in the territory of Winterreise. I sensed, whether intended or otherwise, an intriguing premonition in the opening stanza of the starkness of Mussorgsky. And the chilling sweetness of the brook itself drew us as well as the hero in. Des Baches Wiegenlied was unbearably sad; much more and I felt that I might have gone mad myself. The title’s genitive was made to tell by Johnson: the lullaby was that of the brook, heartless agent that it is. We are but leaves on a tree, or better, reflections in its still, cruel waters.

This recital will be broadcast next Saturday on BBC Radio 3, at 2 p.m.