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Reviews

11 Sep 2018

Heine through Song: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau open a new Wigmore Hall season

The BBC Proms have now gone into hibernation until July 2019. But, as the hearty patriotic strains rang out over South Kensington on Saturday evening, in Westminster the somewhat gentler, but no less emotive, flame of nineteenth-century lied was re-lit at Wigmore Hall, as baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau opened the Hall’s 2018-19 season with a recital comprising song settings of texts by Heinrich Heine.

Florian Boesch (baritone) and Malcolm Martineau (piano), Wigmore Hall, 8th September 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Florian Boesch

Photo credit: Lukas Beck

 

The re-commencement of cultural calendars and customs can be reassuring. But, in fact this recital was far from a routine affair, not least because I doubt that many in the capacity audience were familiar with the lieder of Robert Franz (1815-1892), nine of whose songs opened this concert in which the work of Robert Schumann served as a landing light. Moreover, one of the intriguing aspects of this thoughtful programme was the opportunity that it provided to compare settings of the same text by different composers, either as presented side-by-side, or as recalled from oft-visited memories. And, the relationships intimated by the programme were in no way arbitrary. Franz, who by 1842 had become director of the Singakademie in Halle, where he organised choral festivals, sent his first book of songs to Schumann, who published it in 1843 having written a detailed and favourable review of the edition in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Franz Liszt, who was later one of Franz’s influential supporters, published his own book about Franz in 1872.

The lied was the sole outlet for Franz’s compositional creativity. Born in Halle in 1815, he composed more than 300 songs. If the nine songs presented here are a good benchmark, then Franz’s predominantly strophic songs don’t run a gamut of emotions and moods. Indeed, the composer himself professed, ‘My Lieder are not meant to create excitement but rather peace and calm’. But, they display consummate crafting of small-scale poetic canvases, never melodramatic, always discretely appropriate to the sentiments of the text.

And, the songs have a compelling fluency, which Boesch and Martineau emphasised by flowing briskly segue through the songs. Perhaps, in fact, it might have been nice occasionally to have had a little time to pause and take in the perfume of each individual song; and, a similar forward impetus characterised the whole recital, Schumann’s ‘Belsazar’ closing the first half almost as an appendix to the final song of the Liszt sequence, ‘Loreley’, and Leiderkreis racing onwards from the six songs by Schumann that commenced the second half. Even within songs, there was infrequently room for ponderance upon changes of emotional direction; we were carried on a magic carpet that offered vistas of diverse terrain but did not rest to take in the view of the fluctuating Romantic landscapes.

But, to return to Franz’s lied, these were delivered from the first with striking directness, definition and focus. Boesch’s baritone is a mighty beast, but when the poet-speaker reflected, “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’,/ So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh’ (When I look into your eyes, all my pain and sorrow vanish), it sank low in wonder and diminished to a spine-tingling breath-whisper; Martineau, unfailingly refined, relayed the urgency of ‘Ich will meine Selle tauchen’ (Let me bathe my soul) with a wonderfully light touch. ‘Im Rhein’, shone with nobility and reverence, while ‘Am leuchtenden’ (One bright summer morning) evinced, first, breezy relaxation, then, as Boesch made expressive use of his head voice, the pathos of nature which weeps at man’s foolishness. Martineau’s piano accompaniment was an eerie Will-o’-the-wisp in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ (I wept in my dream), and in this song much was made of dynamic contrasts and of the drama supplied by the motivic drama.

Not surprisingly there was greater sensuous and impassioned rhetoric in the sequence of lieder by Liszt. The bitterness of ‘Vergiftet sind meine Lieder’ (My songs are filled with poison) was quite shocking, the bizarre twistings of the piano playout adding further painful contortions to the singer’s angry, declamatory sneer, somehow simultaneously ironic and honest: ‘Ich trage im Herzen viel Schlagen,/ Und dich, Geliebte mein’ (Many serpents dwell in my heart,/ and you, beloved, too). In contrast, ‘Ein Fichten baum steht einsam’ (A spruce tree stands lonely) sank low in contemplative inscrutability, while the unusual melodic perambulations of ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) were sung pianissimo as if transfixed. This song whetted the appetite for Schumann’s setting of this song, which would follow the interval. Indeed, both the Franz and Liszt sequences were punctuated at the close with a song by Schumann, serving as signposts to the second half of the recital when the composer would be placed exclusively in the spotlight. Appropriately, ‘Abends am Strond’ (Evening by the sea) was sung with carefully measured sentimentality while, later, ‘Belsazar’ rang with dramatic colour and clamour, the text made vivid, almost ‘tactile’ in its terror, the piano accompanied tumbling riotously.

The high drama, though, never excluded subtlety, and the performers’ control of tone, timbre and dynamic was even more strongly felt in the later Schumann songs, dating from 1840-41 - a time in Schumann’s life when elation and despondency must have seemed his mutual friends, the ecstasy of his love for Clara competing with despair and frustration that her father would not allow them to marry. Martineau’s tender, touching playout to ‘Die beiden Grenadier’ (The Two Grenadiers; from Romanzen und Balladen II Op.49) was an eloquent, soulful statement of the French prisoner-of-war’s unwavering dedication to his Emperor and its delicacy prepared perfectly for the first flower-song of Myrten Op.25, ‘Die Lotosblume’. Here, though the melody is simple, Boesch found much nuance in the fragmented line, and the piano’s startling change of harmonic direction with the line ‘Der Mond, der is ihr Buhle’ (The moon is her lover) plunged us into nocturnal raptures. But, Schumann’s lachrymose inclinations returned until the ‘solitary tear’ of ‘Was will die einsame Träne?’ dissolved, a mere memory of disappointed love; and, the ironic wistfulness of ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’, contrasted starkly with the ethereal idealism of Liszt’s setting. The star of ‘Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht’ (There fell a frost one night in spring) sparkled with magical softness.

And, so, on to Liederkreis - the Op.24 set, heard less frequently than the Op.39 collection of Eichendorff settings that Schumann began four months later. The nine poems drawn from the ‘Junge Leiden’ (Youthful sorrows) section of Heine’s Buch der Lieder must have seemed to express the composer’s own longing for a lover who is just out of reach, and Boesch and Martineau conveyed every fluctuation of emotion felt by the poet-narrator, from his somnolent rising (‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und trage’) - the lazy rubato here was delicious authentic - through the shifting kaleidoscope of love’s dramas, to the tired stoicism of ‘Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen’ (At first I almost lost heart).

The performers’ ability to keep the narrative pushing onwards, even when quietly taking us into their confidence at moments of intimacy, was notable. Thus, after the agitation of ‘Es treibt mich hin’ (I’m driven this way) had spilled into the angry piano postlude, the harmonic suspensions of ‘Ich wandelte under den Bläumen’ (I wandered among the trees) transported us into the melancholy of the mysteries which trouble the meandering poet, only for the piano’s dry hammerings in ‘Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen’ (Lay your hand on my heart, my love) to snap us back to the grim reality of death as the carpenter fashions the poet’s coffin. Boesch’s wonderfully mellifluous rendition of ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ did not neglect the almost insane wretchedness of thwarted love, a desperate anguish which overflowed into Martineau’s dark farewell, which was a veritable narrative in itself.

There was a lovely give-and-take within the rolling phrases of the barcarolle, ’Berg und Burgen schau’n herunter’ (Mountains and castles look down), which temporarily assuaged the violence of ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’ (Wait, O wait, wild sailor). And, a similar rhythmic flexibility captured the ambiguous oscillation between expectation and resignation of the final song, ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’; here, Boesch’s tender head-voice - ‘Doch auf neu’ alte Glut sie belebt,/ Wenn der Liebe Geist einst über sie schwebt’ (But the old glow shall revive them again, when one day Love’s spirit floats over them) - trembled with the beauty of fragile hope, as if the poet barely dared to believe.

Finally, two encores, from Dichterliebe, offered a microcosm of the recital’s wonderfully persuasive wanderings amid the emotional extremes of a poet’s love: ‘Hör’ Ich das Liedchen klingen’, in which the beloved’s song makes the poet’s breast burst with ‘wild affliction’, and ‘Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen’, which dismissed Love’s capriciousness with a swift swipe of insouciant sarcasm.

Claire Seymour

Florian Boesch (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Robert Franz - ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ Op.25 No.5, ‘Die Rose, die Lilie’ Op.34 No.5, ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’’ Op.44 No.5, ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen Op.43 No.4, ‘Im Rhein’ Op.18 No.2, ‘Hör ich das Liedchen klingen’ Op.5 No.11, ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ Op.11 No.2, ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ Op.25 No.3, ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’ Op.9 No.4; Robert Schumann - ‘Abends am Strand’ Op.45 No.3; Franz Liszt - ‘Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ S309, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ S287, ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ S272/1, ‘Vergiftet sind meine Lieder’ S289, ‘Loreley’ S273; Robert Schumann - ‘Belsazar’ Op.57, ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ Op.49 No.1, Three lieder from Myrthen Op.25 (‘Die Lotosblume’, ‘Was will die einsame Träne?’, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’), ‘Tragödie’ Op.64 No.3, Liederkreis Op.24.

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 8th September 2018.

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