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Christopher Maltman [Photo courtesy of IMG Artists]
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.

Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang

Christopher Maltman, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Tuesday 20th April 2010.

Above: Christopher Maltman [Photo courtesy of IMG Artists]


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 inescapable death.

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 hope.

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 convincing reading.

Claire Seymour

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