Christopher Maltman & Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall [Winterreise]

Winterreise, D911

Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 11 February, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Christopher Maltman. ©Levon Biss Christopher Maltman’s progress since he won what was then styled the Lieder Prize at Cardiff Singer of the World has involved widening and deepening his understanding of song, and expanding the size and expressive possibilities of his voice in an increasingly demanding operatic career.

This was something of a hybrid “Winterreise”, its most memorable moments involving large-scale operatic extroversion and poetic inwardness; balance was disconcertingly tilted towards the singer (a shared intention of the two artists). Johnson’s prelude to ‘Gute Nacht’ lacked flow, but was soft and hesitant, its phrases choppy. The entry of the singer was contrastingly decisive. Before long the power of Maltman’s voice was unleashed, his mezza voce and full-voiced roar in close proximity foreshadowed the overall character of this performance.

Maltman’s mighty volume was consistently produced: in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ the two massive crescendos in the final stanza left the pianist apparently intimidated, the postlude substantially weakened in comparison with the similar enactment of falling tears in the prelude. In the songs involving a repeat Maltman seemed intent on confirming his vocal power, and second time around the intensity of the sung words was heightened. Maltman’s is a potentially beautiful voice, even at high volume levels, but he was not always concerned to preserve its beauty: the fortissimos occasionally verged on the ugly.

Graham JohnsonThe artists did not release their concept of the cycle willingly or readily. The expression of disdain (a derisive grin) which Maltman projected for much of the time was puzzling. As he proceeded, uncomfortably reminded of what he had lost, he was repeatedly oppressed by winter’s manifestations, some of which, such as the frozen river, he found ruthless and implacable. Having to pass the linden tree, now bare, was a dagger to the heart. He frequently asked questions without receiving answers, and clearly found it hard to shake off his familiar values. His attachment to them survived as late as ‘Der greise Kopf’, where his pride at retaining youthful black hair was majestically proclaimed.

For two-thirds of the cycle, then, Maltman’s traveller sought a purpose for his journey. Only with the seventeenth song (‘Im Dorfe’) did the penny drop and the singer find the answer that he had been seeking. Significantly, it was in this song that his always admirable enunciation reached its pinnacle of clarity, and Johnson was at his most eloquent, making the transition back to the original melody, with the postlude dwelt over. This song emerged as the point of no-return: the traveller renounced all contact with humanity. What he saw from now on were to be delusions, and his destination was death. Perplexity was replaced by certainty, the inevitable acknowledged.

The “törichtes Verlangen” which the singer referred to in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (words which were given particular emphasis in a performance where the phrase rather than the individual word was generally the unit of meaning) was a death-wish, welcomed in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ and embodied in ‘Der Leiermann’ in the meeting with the Grim Reaper. This latter song began with a soft and fuzzy piano figurations, which became focussed as the song proceeded; the singer uttered an audible shudder at ‘Wunderlicher Alter’ as he recognised Death.

Some aspects of this interpretation did not lie comfortably. Tempos were often slow, and individual words had a sforzando applied to them: the leise and stark markings in ‘Rast’, for example, were over-stated. ‘Frühlingstraum’ stood out too much, rather as an opera character’s personal scena might, the dream externalised, the colouring of the three contrasted sections very spare, the third section slowed right down and the conclusion craggily voiced. Conversely, the action of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, the suspense of the teetering leaf and its consequences for the traveller, were conveyed as vividly as the most powerful operatic racconto.

Johnson was by no means eclipsed: details such as the rising phrase in the inner part at the end of the prelude of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ and the ominous triplet chords in ‘Einsamkeit’ made their mark. If the partnership between singer and accompanist had favoured the former earlier, their union became solidified in ‘Der Wegweiser’. Their combined sound was pared away, Maltman’s head-voice was deployed at its most telling, while the initially monotonous phrases in the last stanza were perfectly shaped.

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