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Reviews

28 Nov 2016

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Franz Schubert Lieder : Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth, James Baillieu, Wigmore Hall, London 24th November 2016

A review by Anne Ozorio

 

This recital will be one Lieder aficionados will remember for years. For 19th century Romantics, death was a source of endless fascination, much in the way that sex dominated the 20th century. Many songs in this programme are early works, some written when Schubert was as young as 14, and give an insight into his youthful psyche. Like most teenagers, before and since, he was intrigued by "the dark side". In a strict Catholic society, the Gothic Imagination gave a kind of legitimacy to dangerous, subversive emotions. The whole Romantic sensibility was a kind of Oedipal reaction against the paternalism of neo-Classical values. In these songs, we can hear young Schubert rebelling against his father, connecting to what we'd now call the subconscious.

In Ein Leichenfantasie D7 (1811) to a poem by Friedrich Schiller, a man is burying his son in a crypt. But why is the burial taking place in the dead of night. The son has a "Feuerwunde" penetrating his very soul with "Höllenschmerz". This death was not from natural causes. Suicide was a mortal sin. Schiller's meditation on the reversal of the natural order is sophisticated, the transits in the poem rather more elegant than Schubert's setting. In 1811, he was but still a child, so his transits between ideas are less elegant than Schiller's, but the ideas are original, if not completely coherent. Still, the song is an audacious tour de force lasting nearly 20 minutes, an undertaking that calls for finesse in performance. Eine Leichenfantasie exists in both baritone and tenor versions, though the former is better known, but it would have been asking too much of most audiences to hear both versions together in succession.

There were other sets of songs like Das war ich D174 a and b but the Kosegarten pairs, An Rosa I D315 (1815) and An Rosa II D 316 and the two Abends unter der Linde D235 and D237 (1816) benefited from the greater variety in the settings. The first Abends unter der Linde, for example, is more lyrical, the second more haunted, with its reference to the names of the poet's deceased children. Hence the value of a tenor/baritone recital highlighting contrasts in related pieces. There's clearly a good dynamic between Jackson and Farnsworth, which made the alternations flow together well. Their joint Lied (Ins stille Land) D403 (1816) was extremely impressive, the alternating voices capturing the lively flow of the music in typically Schubertian style, reaching "the land of rest" by vigorous images of movement, vividly depicted by Baillieu's expressive playing. Even with two very different songs, Lob des Tokayers D248 (1815)(Gabriele von Naumberg) and Punschlied 'Im Norden zu singen' D253 (1815) (Schiller) the flow between voices was enhanced by a very genuine sense of conviviality between Jackson and Farnsworth. Sincerity does matter in a genre like Lieder, which is so intense and so personal.

Sincerity matters, too, in strophic ballads like Der Vatermörder D10 (1811) to a poem by Gottlieb Conrad Pfeffel, in which a son kills his father. "Kein Wolf, kein Tiger, nein, Der Mensch allein, der Tiere Fürst, erfand den Vatermord allein, which makes an emotional point, though it's not borne out in nature. The text is maudlin. Having killed his father, the son wipes out a brood of fledgings whom he thinks were mocking him. Such melodrama might call for overblown declamation. Instead, Jackson sang sensitively: we must not laugh. The piano part thunders obsessively, suddenly slowing into watchful near silence, suggesting that the killer is insane, or at least as feral as the beasts of the woods. Like Eine Leuchenfantasie, Der Vatermörder is a teenage piece without much finesse, but Schubert treats it seriously, and so should we. This same emotional truth illuminated another pairing Der Einseidelei I and II, D393(1816) and D563 (1817) respectively. Both are settings of poems by Johann Gaudenz, Freiherr von Salis-Seewis, about hermits who live alone in nature: simple sentiments but not at all simplistic. Jackson's phrasing was sensual yet pure, suggesting that the hermit's choice was riches indeed. In Des Fräuleins Liebeslauchen D698 (1820) (Schlechta), a lovesick knight throws flowers to his ladylove. Jackson's naturalness of expression made us respect the knight, though his love might be in vain.

Jackson and Farnsworth are among the most promising English singers of their generation. I first heard Jackson sing a few songs in a private recital when he was only 22. Yet his voice is so distinctive that I immediately recognized it some years later when he sang at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in 2011. Since then, he's developed extremely well, with a blossoming career in opera. Having worked in Stuttgart, his German is also more idiomatic than most English singers. Marcus Farnsworth won the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition in 2009 and appears in recital and on the BBC. James Baillieu is a well-known song accompanist and chamber player, who presented an 11-concert series at the Wigmore Hall last year.

This splendid programme, and performance, concluded with Schubert's Fischerweise D881 (1826) (Franz Xaver Freiherr von Schlechta) , a familiar favourite but rarely, if ever, heard with tenor and baritone sharing the honours. An inspired idea! The song moves briskly, with the piano playing jaunty rhythms "gleich den Wellen, und frei sein wie die Flut", which repeat in not quite matching pairs. With two singers, you can also hear how this duality is also embedded in the vocal line.The voices interact, like oars, pulling together. In the final strophe,words like "Die Hirtin" and "schlauer Wicht" are separated more clearly than is often the case, but this further emphasizes the choppy "waves" in the piano part and the concept of the sea as a metaphor for life. Meanwhile, on a bridge, a shepherdess coyly pretends to fish. The fisherman isn't fooled. "Den Fisch betrügst du nicht!"

Anne Ozorio

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