Recently in Performances
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23 Apr 2010
Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall, London
The abiding elegance and beauty of Christopher Maltman’s baritone,
complemented by the interpretative wisdom and experience of Graham Johnson, one
of the finest vocal accompanists of recent times, made this an evening of
assured musicianship and expressive poise.
The fourteen songs which comprise Schwanengesang (‘Swan
Song’) were composed by Schubert in the year of his death, 1828. They do
not form a unified sequence: there is no continuous narrative or singular mood.
But, that is in many ways the strength of the ‘cycle’; for it is
the variety of emotions and situations, often juxtaposed in surprising
sequences, which accounts for the unsettling power of these lieder,
many of which are themselves characterised by striking inner contrasts. Dark
despair is followed by hesitant optimism; cynical irony by tentative hope.
Maltman and Johnson did not always distinguish the full range of subtle
emotional tones and shades contained herein, but their control of form —
crafted melodic lines, flexible rhythms and well-judged tempi - coupled with
impressive technical assurance, more than compensated for an occasionally
limited dramatic palette. Opting principally for either a veiled, hesitant
pianissimo or a bitter angry forte, Maltman’s reading
of these songs was one of disquiet and despair.
Maltman’s tone is particularly beautiful in the upper ranges, and his
focused, sweet lyricism was immediately evident in the opening song,
‘Liebesbotschaft’ (‘Love’s message’). Words were
breathed rather than intoned, vigour and passion reserved for a sudden surge of
emotion as the protagonist recollects the ‘crimson glow’ of the
beloved’s roses. The baritone’s large range was immediately
revealed in the following song, an authoritative reading of ‘Kriegers
Ahnung’ (Warrior’s Foreboding’), where Maltman plumbed rich
vocal depths to convey the horror of the death-laden battlefield.
Johnson’s appreciation of musical drama was also revealed: the flowing
ardour of the rippling brook of the opening song was here replaced by a tense,
sprung, rhythmic dynamism, subtle rubati and acceleration highlighting
the modulations between major and minor tonality which enhance the poignant and
ironic contrast between celebrations of earthly love and recognition of
Similar masterly control of pace was evident in ‘Frühlings
Sehnsucht’ (‘Spring Longing’), where the stanzas’
culminating questions - ‘But where?’, ‘But why?’ -
unsettled the calm assurance of the preceding romantic visions of the natural
world. A highlight of the Rellstab settings which form the first half of the
sequence was ‘In der Ferne’ (‘Far away’), where the
piano’s haunting introduction and subsequent echoes of the vocal line
suggested an isolation and alienation which cannot be alleviated by the
poem’s somewhat convention romantic imagery. ‘Abschied’ ends
the Rellstab sequence, a surprisingly light-hearted ‘farewell’ to
the protagonist’s home town as he sets out on his quest; the emotive
inferences of Johnson’s between-verse phrases and, once again, the
contrast of major and minor modes, undermined the spirit of optimism and
prepared for the subsequent Heine settings, with their greater psychological
complexity and unease.
In ‘Der Atlas’ (Atlas) the lonely bitterness of rejection was
forcefully conveyed by the imposing strength of Maltman’s tone, laden
with massive despair, and the frustrated undercurrents in the piano’s
introduction and postlude. After such turbulence, ‘Ihr Bild’
(‘Her likeness’) presented a contrasting moment of oppressive
stillness, although melancholy and loss remained paramount: sparse unison
textures evoked the poet-speaker’s self-tormenting ‘dark
dreams’, oscillating with the warm richer harmonies as the
‘wonderful smile played about her lips’. Such consolation was
however tinged with woe and proved transient. Here Maltman’s control of
the text was superb: the words floated into the ether, revealing the fragility
of his hopes and visions. The light, barcarolle-like ‘Das
Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden’) offered only a short-lived
respite before the gothic hallucinations of ‘Die Stadt’ (‘The
town’) and the sorrowful seascape of ‘Am Meer’ (‘By the
sea’) engulfed us once again. Most impressive in these bleak,
through-composed dramas was Maltman’s alertness to Schubert’s power
of suggestion, and the performers’ recognition of an inferred narrative
in Heine’s sequence; for instance, the harmonic progression which
connects the bare low C at the close of ‘Die Stadt’ to the harmonic
transition at the start of ‘Am Meer’ was skilfully controlled. The
‘narrative’ culminates in the extraordinary, harrowing song,
‘Der Doppelgänger’ where Johnson’s ominous repeating bass
line and startling modulations provided an eerie bed for Maltman’s
agonized free declamations, as the poet-speaker is forced to face the
embodiment of his own misery and anguish.
The light-weight joviality of Seidl’s ‘Taubenpost’
(‘Pigeon-Post’), appended to the sequence by Schubert’s
Viennese publisher, the enterprising Tobias Haslinger, makes for an odd
conclusion; perhaps it was intended to provide symmetry — seven songs in
each ‘half’ — or to alleviate the distress of the despairing
‘Doppelgängeer’, much as ‘Abschied’ (with which it
shares rhythmic motifs and mood) lightened the distant shadows of ‘In der
Ferne’? Whatever the reason for its placement, Maltman found scant
genuine cheer and consolation in ‘Taubenpost’: clear in diction,
sweet in tone, but emotionally reticent, Maltman’s light baritone
suggested the insubstantiality of the protagonist’s certainty and
Maltman’s intelligent performance was technically immaculate. Striving
for extreme, unsettling contrasts, perhaps he and Johnson did not always
capture the full range of emotional nuance; but this was a masterly and