17 Jan 2020

Philippe Jaroussky and Jérôme Ducros perform Schubert at Wigmore Hall

How do you like your Schubert? Let me count the ways …

Tenor or baritone? Male or female voice? Perhaps Angelika Kirchschlager would convince you, as she did me at Temple Church in 2018 , that Winterreise communicates an essential human experience, rather than an explicitly male or female perspective? Then, I recall a performance, with Julius Drake once again at the piano, by Iestyn Davies at Middle Temple Hall in 2017 , in which his countertenor brought a simplicity and freshness to the initial optimism of the carefree country youth who sets out on his pastoral wanderings in Die schöne Müllerin. And, just this month the Voyager Quartet have released a recording of songs from Winterreise arranged for string quartet , with specially composed Intermezzi placed between the songs.

In this Wigmore Hall recital, French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky strayed from what one might consider his ‘home patch’, the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, into the waters of early nineteenth-century Romanticism, and presented twenty of Schubert’s lieder. He was accompanied by pianist Jérôme Ducros with whom Jaroussky has previously recorded nineteenth-century French melodies ( Green (2015), and Opium (2009)).

All of Jaroussky’s distinguished and distinctive vocal qualities - elegance, precision, mellifluous lyricism and sweet warmth of tone - were brought to bear on these German lieder and if one occasionally missed the range of colour, variety of weight and tonal darkness with which a tenor or baritone might inject drama and tension, then Jaroussky’s exquisite phrasing and Ducros’ sensitivity were more than recompense. Indeed, I cannot overstate the contribution that Ducros’ relaxed virtuosity and expressive insight made to the duo’s persuasive expressive artistry. From the first song, ‘Im Frühling’, the pianist naturally inhabited the ‘spirit’ of the idiom. The relaxed piano introduction conjured the reflective wistfulness of the poet-speaker, while the subsequent switch to the minor mode, with the protagonist’s acknowledgement of human frailties, was pointed with a subtle quickening and a tensing of the tone, before a dreamy rubato eased the young man back into his memories.

That said, the first entry of the voice did still startle, the countertenor tone and timbre seeming an interloper to ears familiar with this repertory. And, as the recital unfolded, certain challenges were evident, and not always fully overcome. Occasionally Jaroussky’s voice lacked the inner tension required to convey the textual ambiguities and irony: “Die Sehnsucht du,/ Und was sie stillt” (you are longing and what stills it), sings the poet-speaker at the opening of ‘Du bist die Ruh’, but I missed the intensity of the paradox and, later, the sense of overwhelming emotions as the voice climbs higher: “Treib andern Schmerz/ Aus dieser Brust.” (Drive other pain from this breast!), though the vocal warmth of Jaroussky’s pianissimo in the final stanza and the piano’s subtle pause before the final line were welcome compensation. Elsewhere, as in ‘Nacht und Träume’, the piano was pushed a little low by the need for transposition, creating a gulf between the accompaniment’s rumbling depths - though Ducros achieved a remarkable clarity - and the gleaming arcs of the vocal line far above.

Yet, as the recital unfolded such matters seemed of little import. As early as the second song, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’, Jaroussky began to persuasively transport the listener to poetic worlds, the lower lying vocal line and smoothly skipping octave leaps capturing all of the fisherman’s innocent joy and passionate transcendence, the latter confirmed by the piano’s gentle tierce de Picardie. Jaroussky imbued playful songs such as ‘An die Laute’, with its whisperings of love, or ‘Wiedersehn’, with its joyful anticipation of return and reunion, with a beguiling naturalness: the latter began with a gentle ‘nudge’ forward from the piano and acquired increasing richness of tone. The duo eschewed sentimentalism and mannerism, pushing the tempo forward in ‘An die Musik’, and thereby communicating with directness and strength. They used the the text effectively in ‘An Sylvia’, the rhythmic repetitions in the piano bass providing a buoyant foundation for worshipful lover’s reflections on Sylvia’s peerless beauty and virtue.

Moreover, the songs’ innate inner conflicts became increasingly potent. The low whispers of ‘Erster Verlust’ - “Ach, ver bringt die schone Tage,/ Wer jene holde Zeit zurück!” (Ah, who will bring the fair days back, who that radiant time!) - mourned with sweet sadness; ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ (Scene from Hades) was intensely rhetorical. In the second half of the recital, Jaroussky seemed to gain confidence and venture more deeply into the songs’ dramas: ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ ranged widely, the poet-speaker’s initial joy, enhanced by the playful sinuousness of the piano, welled urgently with memories of separation and loss, and Jaroussky found variety within the stanzaic form. In both ‘Herbst’ and ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ the duo captured the Romantic paradox which unites simplicity and intensity, wonder and pain. ‘Im Abendrot’ possessed something of the strangeness and awe that the wanderer experiences in Winterreise’s ‘Die Nebensonnen’.

‘Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen’ epitomised their expressive eloquence, Jaroussky shaping the vocal phrases beautifully to form a long, even expanse. It seemed fitting that this song slipped segue into Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, as the countertenor imperceptibly left the platform, for Ducros sustained the song’s fluent articulacy, communicating the core strength and struggle within the tender external weavings and reflections of the Impromptu. This was playing of rare insight and musicality. The ten songs in the first half had been similarly divided by an instrumental item, Schubert’s Klavierstück in E flat, which Duclos presented with rhetorical clarity and range: a compelling miniature drama.

Should Jaroussky and Duclos consider recording this Schubert programme, I would tentatively suggest that they might reverse the two final items! Duclos crafted a strong narrative in ‘Nachstück’, but Jaroussky’s countertenor doesn’t have the variety of tone to capture the contrasting voices of the poem’s speakers. The preceding ‘Abendstern’, however, was a masterclass in the art of song which the duo presented with characteristic unassuming eloquence.

Claire Seymour

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) , Jérôme Ducros (piano)

Schubert: ‘Im Frühling’ D882, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’ D933, ‘An die Laute’ D905, ‘Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands’ D677, ‘Wiedersehn’ D855, Klavierstück in E flat D946 No.2, ‘An die Musik’ D547, ‘Erster Verlust’ D226, ‘An Silvia’ D891, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ D776, ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ D583, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ D741, ‘Der Musensohn’ D764, ‘Nacht und Träume’ D827, ‘Herbst’ D945, ‘Am Tage aller Seelen’ D343, Impromptu in G flat D899 No.3, ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ D774, ‘Im Abendrot’ D799, ‘Die Sterne’ D939, ‘Abendstern’ D806, ‘Nachtstück’ D672

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 16th January 2020.