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Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open the Wigmore Hall’s 2017/18 season
10 Sep 2017

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open the Wigmore Hall’s 2017/18 season

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Robin Tritschler

Photo credit: Garreth Wong

 

In fact, John Gilhooly, the Director of the Wigmore Hall, looked surprisingly relaxed on Saturday evening at the opening recital of the 2017/18 season - but, then, well he might since he had been fortunate in having Irish tenor Robin Tritschler available and willing to slip into the shoes left vacant by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, and pianist Julius Drake at hand to emit his customary air of consummate equanimity and banish any hint of urgency or nervousness.

It’s not the first time that Tritschler has come to the Wigmore Hall’s rescue at such short notice: in April 2016 he deputised for the indisposed John Mark Ainsley, stepping in at the last minute to perform a lunchtime recital of twentieth-century British song alongside pianist Gary Matthewman. On this occasion, Tritschler’s programme replicated Finley’s planned trajectory from Schubert to Britten by way of Ravel, with Schumann’s Liederkreis replacing Poulenc’s Le bestiaire and Turnage’s Three Songs for baritone.

Tritschler is an eloquent performer. It’s a somewhat hackneyed adjective, liberally used by reviewers; but, in this case it is an apt word to denote Tritschler’s ‘clean’ fresh tone, direct and unmannered delivery, very clearly enunciated diction, thoughtfully considered and stylish phrasing, and poised stage presence.

These qualities were put to fullest expressive effect in the concluding item of the programme, Britten’s Winter Words of 1953, in which Tritschler’s understated articulateness powerfully evoked the mood of nostalgia, perhaps regret, and quiet reflection, or perhaps a more bitter loss, that is summed up in the opening words - ‘A time there was …’ - of the concluding song of Britten’s cycle, a setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Before Life and After’. The vocal line is less florid than that in many earlier Britten songs and Tritschler projected the text with particular clarity, aided by Drake’s lean accompanying textures.

The first song in Britten’s sequence, ‘At Day-close in November’, typifies the nostalgia, tinged with a deeper sorrow, with which Hardy reflects on the passing of time. The day is closing, the summer warmth of June has given way to an autumnal November, and the narrator has progressed from childhood to adulthood. The light is ‘abating’ - a verb which suggests a drawing back, slipping away of time, that the poet-narrator is powerless to stop. Although the pine trees were planted by the narrator, he has no sense of ownership or control. Personified, they toss their heads impatiently.

The upward flourishes of Drake’s introduction conveyed the impetuous and passionate drama which is present in the poem, evoking the querulous pitching to and fro of the pine branches which, ‘like waltzers waiting,/ Give their black heads a toss.’ Tritschler’s melodic line undulated gently, suggesting the movement of the ‘late bird’ which drifts across the sky, and the seeping of day into night. There was a real sense of buoyancy and movement in the second stanza, as the beech leaves ‘Float past like specks in the eye’, the dissonances communicating the poet-narrator’s agitation and bitterness, but this quietened as the vocal line descended and the speaker slipped into memories of past days - ‘I set every tree in my June time’. The chordal texture, effective pedalling from Drake and the sweet vocal pianissimo in the final stanza led to a sense of stillness, reflecting the ruminative text which imagines, ‘A time when no tall trees grew here/That none will in time be seen’.

‘Midnight on the Great Western’, which also explores movement - through time and from place to place, as an adult narrator reflects compassionately on a lonely child who is travelling in a third-class railway carriage, to an unknown destination - followed segue. Drake proved a good mimic: the opening chords suggested a locomotive working up steam, before the reverberations gave way to a marked staccato articulation which gathered momentum and motion. Tritschler communicated a strong sense of the distance between the poet and the boy, whose private world he struggles to penetrate, and the penultimate stanza had both an earnestness and an elegiac quality as he pondered the boy’s past and his journey ‘Towards a world unknown’.

The shifting focus of ‘Wagtail and baby’ would have been enhanced by greater variety of vocal colour, but Drake’s accompaniment here and in the ensuing ‘The little old table’ was notable for its clarity despite the constant rapid movement. In ‘The choirmaster’s burial’ Tritschler’s unaccompanied passages were compellingly candid and the voice’s falling melismas beautifully lyrical, while the dense piano textures - weighty chords and arpeggiated figures, cross-rhythms - were never heavy-handed.

Tritschler’s light tenor had no difficulty negotiating the high-lying phrases of ‘Proud songsters’ and ‘At the railway station, Upway’. The latter was recited in unadorned fashion as the texture was pared down, reflecting perhaps the honest innocence of the ‘little boy’s’ words which, as much as his twanging fiddle, reach out and briefly touch, even change, the convict and the constable to whom he plays. Drake’s sustained notes underscored this naivety, contrasting with the vigorous, sardonic rhythms which accompany the convict’s outburst, “This life so free/ Is the thing for me!”

The final song, ‘Before Life and After’, from Hardy’s 1909 collection Time’s Laughing Stocks, makes explicit the central theme of the cycle - namely, the loss of primal innocence - as Hardy yearns back to a time before consciousness, before senses and feelings, a time evoked by Drake’s impassive, repeated, close-positioned root triads at the start. By, the final verse, the dialogue between the voice and piano had escalated in intensity, the voice rising ever higher, until the reiterated question, ‘How long?’ triggered a cascading lament.

Tritschler didn’t quite indulge in a cry of despair. This account of Winter Words had a composed soberness, with no sense of sentimentality, but there was a disturbing sense at the close that darkness might prevail. In the songs which preceded Britten’s settings, however, I’d have liked a greater range of colour and mood - a little more intensity to counter the urbanity, a sense of emotional risk to balance the refinement.

The opening sequence of songs by Schubert began blithely, as if in media res. The vocal line of ‘Die Sterne’ (The stars) was relaxed and flexible, every word made to count. The carefree spirit continued in the piano’s lilting introduction to ‘Alinde’ but Tritschler did not really convey the growing anxiety, even desperation, of the speaker whose beloved fails to arrive and who questions first the reaper, then the fisherman and finally the huntsman: ‘mein Liebchen nicht gesehn?’ (have you not seen my love’, before casting an appeal into the moonlit air, ‘Alinde, Alinde!’ ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) was fairly brisk, Drake’s accompaniment quite dry - though the pianist’s subtle rubatos were expressive, particularly in the postlude. ‘Die Einsame’ (The recluse) was similarly enriched by Drake’s bass triplets and the piano’s closing descent.

Schumann’s Liederkreis followed and again I found that, while the sequence acquired expressive momentum, it was Drake who was injecting drama into the individual songs, creating trembling tension in ‘Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen aufs Herze mein’ (Lay your hand on my heart, my love) for example, with his pointed staccatos, or building with tender melancholy through ‘Schōne Wiege meiner Leiden’ (Lovely cradle of my sorrow) before an abrupt change of mood when the speaker is assailed by his lover’s bitter words, (With myrtles and roses). ‘Es treibt mich hin’ (I’m driven this way) pushed forward at the close, but the haste was stalled by a lovely stillness at the start of ‘Ich wandelte under den Bäumen’ (I wandered among the trees), the opening verse of which was skilfully shaped by Tritschler. And, if the image of old dreams stealing into the speaker’s heart might have been more laden with haunting emotion then the tenor effected a wonderful diminuendo to capture the birds’ snatching up of the woman’s ‘golden’ words, before withdrawing into introspection at the close. ‘Berg’ und Burgen schau’n herunter’ (Mountains and castles look down) was wistfully dreamy; ‘Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen’ (At first I almost lost heart) characterised by a bewilderment which almost stalled into stasis and silence. Initially, Drake’s accompaniment seemed to burst with exuberance in ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ but the tenor line became increasingly reticent when the flowers and the songs they embody ‘lie reticent, as though dead’ and Tritschler’s final words were blanched of warmth and hope, the pale letters in the book whispering ‘with sadness and the breath of love’.

Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques opened the second half of the recital in assertive fashion, but were more notable for Tritschler’s lovely floating head voice - in ‘Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques’ (Song of the lentisk gatherers) especially - than for the sort of colour and drama with which they had been imbued by Christiane Karg at Cadogan Hall two weeks before.

But, it seems mean to quibble. Without Robin Tritschler we might have enjoyed no music at all, and this was an accomplished and self-possessed performance which got the Wigmore Hall’s 2017/18 season off to a lucid and lyrical start.

Claire Seymour

Robin Tritschler (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Schubert: ‘Die Sterne’ D939, ‘Alinde’ D904, ‘An die Nachtigall’ D497, Schubert ‘Ständchen’ from Schwanengesang D957, ‘Der Einsame’ D800; Schumann: Liederkreis Op.24; Ravel: Cinq mélodies populaires grecques; Britten: Winter Words Op.52

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 9th September 2017

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