Christopher Maltman & Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall – Schwanengesang

Schubert
Schwanengesang, D957

Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 20 April, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Wigmore Hall’s promotional material for this recital referred to Christopher Maltman’s exploration of Schubert’s “three great song-cycles”. Of course the fourteen songs performed here (and recorded for Wigmore Live) are a publisher’s creation, which lack the unity of the two true cycles in any major respect: the existence of a narrative, a single creative source, equality of either poetic or musical inspiration. The convenience and commercial rewards of assembling these disparate products of Schubert’s final months of composing in the genre whose expressive possibilities he had so astonishingly enlarged did not even produce a modern conception of a full Liederabend: little more than fifty minutes in and the audience is applauding Schubert’s setting of Seidl’s sunnily optimistic verses.

Various attempts have been made to restore the integrity of the constituent parts of this artificially synthesised collection. Treating the six Heine settings as a separate entity and creating a programme by surrounding them with songs of similar theme and comparable stature is the most effective, tacking on the three other Rellstab settings the neatest (though this procedure has problems of its own). In the remaining months of this current Wigmore Hall season Gerald Finley is scheduled to sing the detached Heine songs in a mixed programme, while Ian Bostridge is bulking up the complete collection with four other songs from 1828.

“Die schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise” have a special status, invariable being performed without interval and untainted by being followed by encores. “Schwanengesang” simply cannot sustain that reverence, for reasons not only of length but also of artistic consistency. In the event, two encores were added to the advertised programme.

The evening got off to an uneven start. Graham Johnson’s playing of the figurations representing the babbling brook was initially bumpy and the whole foundation of the song never achieved the beauty it demands. A more unhappy surprise was Christopher Maltman’s disruption of the singing line by swallowing certain syllables and conversely spotlighting others, in the manner of spoken rather than sung communication. This recurred in ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’; perhaps a less-brisk tempo would have mitigated the effect. Certainly the following ‘Ständchen’, with its mässig marking, received as fine an interpretation as I can remember hearing. The lightness of touch Johnson employed for the guitar-like quavers in the right-hand was ideal, while the piano’s prominence in both the imitations of the singer and their joint phrases in thirds were perfectly judged. Maltman did not overdo the schmaltz, limiting his additions to a neatly turned ritardando at “rühren mit den Silbertönen”.

The dramatic ‘Kriegersahnung’ was another early success. Johnson’s treatment of the double-dotted gestures in the opening episode was clear but not emphatic, his transitions between the sections like instant cinematic scene-changes. Maltman used his range of colours to convey warm lyricism, stern gravity and panicky anxiety, while his technical control in passing between the registers and negotiating hairpin dynamics, notably a messa di voce (twice) at “Von Sehnsucht mir so heiss” was impressive.

Performers of the collection as published are faced with the problem of the heterogeneous nature of the Rellstab settings. Maltman’s and Johnson’s approach was to squeeze every last drop of negative emotion from the pessimistic songs ‘Aufenhalt’ and ‘In der Fremde’, closing the gap with the nightmarish Heine poems. An atmosphere of chilling austerity was established straight away in ‘Aufenthalt’ and the poet’s natural surroundings emerged as a picture of hell. Maltman’s response was to protest in a thunderous fortissimo which filled the auditorium as few singers dare at this venue, only to tail off into desolate resignation. The suffering of the itinerant fugitive in ‘In der Ferne’ was as great as that of the stationary victim, though explored with more subtle attention to detail: the remorseless repetition of the same two-bar shape was complemented by variations of colour and emphasis. ‘Abschied’ provided little relief: the departing rider was a most dislikeable fellow, the cockily prancing rhythm supporting a brazen lack of regret for what he was leaving behind.

I had the impression intermittently through this first group that Maltman was vocally a trifle uneasy and he paused for a while before embarking on the Heine settings to summon up his resources for the challenge. He didn’t play all his cards prematurely: ‘Der Atlas’ gave the impression of reserves of power to come. The change of colour in ‘Ihr Bild’ as the animated portrait seemed to break into a smile was not overdone and the fateful realisation of loss despatched quite quickly.

The nightmare gained an extra dimension of horror in ‘Die Stadt’. Johnson articulated the arpeggiated figurations (which Gerald Moore once wrote that he had never got quite right!) with exceptional clarity. Recriminations towards the toxic lover in ‘Am Meer’ were not overplayed and misgivings over Maltman’s legato had long since been quelled. But everything was clearly envisaged as leading to the ultimate horror of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. The scene-setting was full of foreboding, the autobiographical narrative built in waves of intensity. A hint of spongy tone in the second of the three fffs tended to confirm that the singer was not in absolutely top form, though the difficult descent from fff to piano in the final phrase was well controlled. Die Taubenpost was the usual anti-climax, though Maltman and Johnson worked hard to create a smiling mood of innocence.

The two encores were given by the singer with score in hand. The Rellstab setting “Herbst” has been attached to Haslinger’s seven before, notably by José Van Dam in his recording of the cycle. Finally, Graham Johnson introduced the 1828 song to words by Karl Gottfried von Leitner, “Der Winterabend”. His affection for the piece was obvious and it clearly inspired Maltman.

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