19 May 2010

Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

At the Wigmore Hall, performers can chose daring repertoire, because audiences there are unusually receptive.

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau presented Schubert and Hugo Wolf with Zemlinsky and Ernst Krenek.

Florian Boesch is very well regarded and a regular at the Wigmore Hall. Malcolm Martineau’s even more of a fixture, as his mother was page turner there years ago — his connections go back a long way. Together they are a draw you don’t miss, but this programme was something special.

Two versions of Goethe’s Prometheus, for example, Schubert D 674 from 1819 and Hugo Wolf, from1889. Both are naturally full of foreboding, for Prometheus defied the gods and was doomed to suffer for eternity. Yet both reflect the times in which they were written. Schubert’s version is powerful, but classically elegant. Wolf’s version could only have been written after Richard Wagner changed the way the world hears dramatic music. Wolf’s passionate outbursts sound almost demented, Boesch’s voice ringing with frenzy, Martineau pounding the keys in suppressed fury, less heavy on the pedal than he’d been in Schubert, but better for that.

Between the two versions of Prometheus, Boesch and Martineau pitted Schubert’s Gesange des Harfners songs (D 478, 480 and 479) with Wolf’s *Three Lieder to texts by Michelangelo *(1897). The latter are amongst the darkest pieces Wolf wrote, worlds away from the airy M√∂rike songs. Relatively few singers excel in them, for conversely, they need a certain lightness of touch to heighten the shadows. Boesch doesn’t have quite the same richness of colour Goerne can bring to these songs, but he’s reasonably flexible. The phrase, “Alles endet, was entstehet” was quietly sung, with delicacy.

Pairing Alexander Zemlinsky with Ernst Krenek was interesting, too. Zemlinsky composed a great many Lieder, and indeed may have polished Alma Mahler’s Lieder with her. His songs,though, don’t generally reach the imaginative heights of The Lyric Symphony. Die schlanke Wasserlilie, In der Ferne and Wand’l ich in dem Wald des Abends are among the best known. Had Boesch and Martineau paired Zemlinsky’s *Waldegesprache *with the version by Robert Schumann, the difference would have been telling. Few performances make Zemlinsky’s songs much more than pleasant, but it’s not necessarily for lack of trying.

The highlight of the evening were seven songs from Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den √∂sterreichischen Alpen op 62 (1929). This is a remarkable cycle of 20 songs, a seminal work of the 20th century. Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf was notoriously modern, featuring jazz tunes and a black saxophonist: definitely “degenerate music” which horrified many at the time, including Julius Korngold, the arch-conservative critic.

Austria was now no longer a colourful polyglot Empire, but a truncated rump of German speakers, who weren’t German. This identity crisis was further compounded by modern change, new technology and new values. Thus Krenek left Vienna for the Alps, to find, if he could, the Austrian soul. “Ich reise aus, meine Heimat zu entdecken”. Throughout the cycle, there are references to “Technik Sklaven” (slaves to technology) to hardship, vulgar capitalism, dirty politics and the evils of war.

Krenek coats his songs with sarcasm, for the cycle is a savage indictment of modern society. Alpenbewohner, for example refers to “wilden Nomaden”, ie German daytrippers who tear around rural Austria on their motorbikes, drunkenly offending the locals. But the locals are poor, they need the income tourists bring and are powerless to resist. Krenek didn’t know, in 1929, how prophetic his observations would prove.

The final song, Epilog, is relatively upbeat. Krenek sees an old saying carved on a sign above a door, a very Austrian touch. We may not know when or how our lives may end but somehow we’re happy, it suggests. Krenek seems to conclude that change is inevitable, and must be faced, but doesn’t necessarily preclude happiness.

On their own, the seven songs from the cycle don’t really convey the full impact of the full Reisebuch, though they have been produced as a group in the past. Boesch and Martineau performed them very well, but it would have helped greatly if the programme notes had been up to the usual high standards one expects from the Wigmore Hall.

Anne Ozorio