“Marking the 150th anniversary of the death of Carl Loewe, one of the great bass voices of our time explores some of his masterly ballads in a programme that also includes songs by Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), whose promising career ended in wartime action.” [Wigmore Hall website]

Franz-Josef Selig (bass) & Gerold Huber (piano)

Franz-Josef Selig
Photograph: Marion Koell The first half of this Wigmore recital was the equivalent of binge-watching an entire series of Game of Thrones, for it comprised a succession of Carl Loewe’s settings of some great and usually gothic ballads. Don’t get too fond of the main persona of the song for they will most likely have reached a grisly end, murdered someone (usually a family member), encountered malevolent spirits, or witnessed a procession of the undead and suchlike before the end. Throw in some powerful natural forces, themes of military and personal honour, and a hint of religiosity and you have it all.

With Gerold Huber providing brilliant elemental accompaniment to help depict the various aural landscapes with thrilling precision, energy and control of dynamics the magnificent voice of Franz-Josef Selig was superbly supported. Selig’s is truly a hugely imposing instrument, thrillingly resonant in its lower reaches, switching from the sepulchral to saturnine to mellow with ease. He proved to be a consummate communicator of the narratives, relishing the descriptive poetry as well, alive to every mood and inflection. Interesting to hear Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’ text, so familiar from the Schubert setting, being treated so differently by Loewe, and the rather more positive attributes of the encounter of King James and Archibald Douglas brought the end of this ballad feast to a satisfying conclusion.

In contrast the second half was rather reflective, allowing Selig to show great skill in reining back his voice and demonstrating his ability to sing long lines with quiet intensity. The three Wolf Harfenspieler songs were deftly controlled in this regard, whilst the settings by Rudi Stephan, whose early promise was curtailed in action in 1915, had more bite and declamatory force. The concert concluded with more Wolf, this time philosophical, particularly memorable for the varied vocalism and the pianistic flourishes depicting Goethe’s power of wave and water. The final sung low note was awesome, though Huber reminded one gently, almost affectionately, that the piano’s depths are lower than those than can be sung by man. To complete a fabulous evening, a Wolf encore, his version of Lenau’s Fragenicht.

 

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