12 Sep 2018

The Path of Life: Ilker Arcayürek sings Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall’s BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert 2018-19 series opened this week with a journey along The Path of Life as illustrated by the songs of Schubert, and it offered a rare chance to hear the composer’s long, and long-germinating, setting of Johann Baptist Mayrhofer’s philosophical rumination, ‘Einsamkeit’ - an extended eulogy to loneliness which Schubert described, in a letter of 1822, as the best thing he had done, “mein Bestes, was ich gemacht habe”.

I first heard Istanbul-born, Austrian tenor Ilker Arcayürek at Easter this year, when he performed J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall. On that occasion, I admired Arcayürek’s effortless lyricism which, as if loaded like honey on a gilded painter’s brush, also infused this all-Schubert recital at Wigmore Hall. Arcayürek displayed a beguilingly easeful delivery of both text and melodic line: he clearly had lots of power in reserve, but for the most he kept it there, focusing our attention instead on the naturalness of his vocal expression. The tenor has a direct gaze and an earnest desire to communicate, without mannerism or artifice; in fact, it was perhaps a pity that he did not perform these songs from memory, particularly as the music stand and score seemed largely redundant. Accompanist Ammiel Bushakevitz has a similarly relaxed, unfussy manner. His relaxed differentiation of the different strands within the piano textures, and their relative import, made a considerable contribution to the full gamut of emotions and experiences encountered this ‘Path of Life’.

The recital was divided into two parts, eight single songs prefacing the 20-minute ‘Einsamkeit’. Bushakevitz’s introduction to ‘Fischerweise’ burbled insouciantly, a fitting opening for this carefree work-song (we heard Schubert’s 2nd version, Op.96 No.4), though some telling rubatos and subtleties infused it with an artistry more elevated than one might expect of a fisherman’s ditty. ‘An Silvia’ was similarly untroubled, though again, not without thoughtful communication of the text. After the dreamy softness of the poet’s second-stanza reflections on his beloved’s gentle child-like charm, the final stanza was more forthright and purposeful in its resounding dedication of the song to Sylvia’s honour, and Bushakevitz’s Mozartian clarity kept over-sentimentality at bay.

In ‘Der Wanderer an der Mond’ we enjoyed the beautiful warmth of Arcayürek’s tenor as it rose to question the moon, ‘Was mag der Unterschied wohl sein?’ There was attentiveness to the expressive details of the text here, too, the tenor’s precisely rolled ‘r’ - ‘Wir wander Beide rüstig zu’ - furthering the currents of the piano’s rippling chords, and conveying the briskness of the poet’s journey through the night with his lunar companion. Bushakevitz complemented such nuances, neglecting not the smallest dynamic gesture or harmonic colouring, as the piano’s gentle rhythmic fluctuations created an ambiguous balance between irony and innocence. In contrast, ‘Atys’ unfolded like a heavy, burdensome sigh. Occasionally Arcayürek had a tendency to throw away the last word or syllable of a phrase, which weakened the intensity of the rhymes, but there was effective rhetorical energy in the central section, ‘Ich liebe, ich rase, ich hab sie gesehn’ (I live, I rage, I have seen her) etc., and the tensions of the major/minor alternations with the return of the main melody were expressive.

I found some of the central songs in the sequence a little too slow, and although the mood of dream-like rapture evoked by Bushakevitz’s refined rhythmic freedom and Arcayürek’s dulcet head-voice in ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ (I greet you) produced a lovely wistfulness, the slow tempo also drew attention to the imprecision of the articulation of some of the poet’s rhymes, and Arcayürek lost his way a little through the chromatic twists and turns. The piano bass resonated with melancholy weight in ‘Wehmut’, from which the light tenor line floated, detached from the world, lost in forlorn musing. Again, though, I thought that the languorous tempo weakened the impact of the harmonic journey, and the expressive shifts between major and minor modes; it also made it more of a challenge for Arcayürek to centre the pitch, particularly when beauty vanished and passed away at the close (‘Entschwindet, und vergeht’).

The steady tempo suited ‘Der Wanderer’ however, emphasising Bushakevitz’s discerning ebbs and flows and Arcayürek’s attentiveness to the text: the ardency of his cry, ‘Wo bist du?’, was complemented by the piano’s repeating triplets which created a strong onward narrative yet were also laden with emotion. The changing moods of the stanzas unfolded persuasively, and the piano’s delicate, suspended final cadence became the persistent whisper that tortures the poet: ‘Dort, wo du nicht bist/ dort ist das Glück!’ (There, where you are not, there fortune lies!’)

This was truly beautiful singing, though perhaps still an interpretation-in-progress. The crafting of the vocal line’s appoggiaturas, the intended effect of the different notation employed for the rhythms of tenor and piano (do Schubert’s dotted and triplet rhythms denote the same thing?), the balance between loveliness and narrative: further reflections on such matters will surely follow and deepen Arcayürek’s performance. With the appearance of the ‘Geisterhauch’ (ghostly whisper), Arcayürek dropped only an octave from the question, ‘Wo?’, but the deep plummet to a low G# surely emphasises the poet’s weary, anxious despondency. However, such tiny concerns were pushed aside by the easy mellifluousness of ‘Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen’ (Litany for the Feast of All Souls) which, lying fairly low in the tenor’s range, showcased the gentleness of the vocal rises; there was a consoling warmth here and it was a pity that we heard only two of the poet’s seven stanzas.

And so, the path had taken us to ‘Einsamkeit’. I felt that Bushakevitz played too freely with the rhythm of the piano introduction, rushing through the semibreves and distorting the mood of the opening verse in which the poet-speaker yearns for the solitude which will serve as a sacred refreshment to his spirit. But, the threat of mental disintegration which follows was powerfully conveyed and the accumulation of tension and pace as the stanzas progressed was well controlled. Perhaps the silent pause which follows the easing back preceding the return of melancholy might have been just a little longer - the sort of risk-taking that pushes the emotive power of the setting further still - and the agony of the pain of longing even more piercing? Arcayürek wonderfully conveys enraptured introspection but the anguished suffering of Schubert’s wanderers is less persuasive.

If I were to venture any ‘criticism’, it would be that this recital was all just too achingly beautiful -though, I confess, this is hardly cause for complaint, and (as regular readers of this journal will know), my own preferences tend towards the bitter, burning distortions and troughs of despair of the interpretations of Ian Bostridge. Arcayürek and Bushakevitz clearly enjoyed their lunchtime visit to Wigmore Hall, as did the warmly appreciative audience. Arcayürek grew up in the district of Vienna in which Schubert died, and his encore, ‘Wandrers Nachtlied II’, showed his instinct for the Schubertian alliance of freshness and vulnerability - something I would be very happy to hear again.

Claire Seymour

The Path of Life : Ilker Arcayürek (tenor), Ammiel Bushakevitz (piano)

Schubert: ‘Fischerweise’, ‘An Silvia’, ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’, ‘Atys’, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’, ‘Wehmut’, ‘Der Wanderer’ D493, ‘Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen’, ‘Einsamkeit’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10th September 2018.