Christopher Maltman in New York

Belsatzar, Op.57
Die Löwenbraut, Op.31/1
Die feindlichen Brüder, Op.49/2
Die beiden Grenadiere, Op.49/1
La Vague et la cloche
L’invitation au voyage
Le Manoir de Rosemonde
À Chloris
Le Promenoir des deux amants
Chansons gaillardes – La Maîtresse volage; L’Offrande; La Belle jeunesse

Christopher Maltman (baritone) &
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 20 October, 2005
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

The career of English baritone Christopher Maltman has been in the ascendant since he captured the Lieder Prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1997. His recital at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall capped an extended sojourn in New York that also saw his highly successful Metropolitan Opera debut as Harlekin in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”. As in his three previous New York recitals, Maltman was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau.

In the opening set of Schumann ballads, Maltman proved a gripping storyteller, establishing through voice, facial expression and gesture an immediate rapport with his audience. In “Belsatzar”, his account of Belshazzar’s banquet built to a dramatic climax as the king declared himself – not Jehovah – to be the king of Babylon before taking on an increasingly chilling tone and fading to a mere whisper as the king and his knights watched the writing appearing on the wall; the king’s murder brought the song to its abrupt conclusion. “Die Löwenbraut” tells the story of a zookeeper’s daughter about to be married who bids farewell to the lion she has always cared for, only to be killed by the beast when it becomes enraged by the arrival of her fiancée. Schumann relies heavily on the piano to delineate the segments of the narrative, and Martineau was well up to the task, setting a foreboding tone with the dark figure that frames the first stanza before delicately reflecting the tenderness of Maltman’s rendering of the bride’s farewell and repeating the opening figure as she gives the lion a final kiss. The crashing chords that accompany the lion’s violent outburst fade as the lion awaits the fatal bullet from the fiancée’s gun, with the opening figure returning once more to conclude the work. In “Die feindlichen Brüder”, which tells of two brothers who, duelling over a woman, slay each other yet eternally continue their battle, Maltman conveyed the fierceness of the duel, the loveliness of its object and, finally, the horror of the ghostly proceedings. “Die beiden Grenadiere”, which closed the opening set, has figured prominently in Maltman’s repertoire, having been included in a fascinating set of songs on soldiers and war that made up the concluding half of his New York debut recital several years ago. His rendition on this occasion completely captured the shame, despair and patriotic fervour of two soldiers of the defeated French army yearning to reach their homeland – whether in life or death.

Mahler’s five “Rückert Lieder” challenge the singer to demonstrate vocal and expressive breadth. In “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft”, which lies at the upper end of Maltman’s range, he produced a lovely, silvery tone which he could not quite match in “Liebst du um Schönheit”. The delicacy of Maltman’s rendering of those songs, as well as “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”, contrasted starkly with the solemn but ultimately uplifting “Um Mitternacht”. Maltman’s compelling performance of this song showed off the lower end of his range to great advantage, aided by Martineau’s expressive playing of the tolling accompaniment. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, which ended the first half of the recital, is contemplative and serene, and the expressiveness of Maltman’s singing, and Martineau’s playing of the postlude, earned a respectful silence before the audience’s applause.

French song is a speciality of Maltman’s, and the second half of his recital comprised songs by five composers, beginning with four Duparc mélodies. In “La Vague et la cloche”, Maltman returned to storytelling mode, using dynamic variation to relate the narrator’s potion-induced dream of being adrift at sea only to suddenly find himself alone in a belfry, straddling a ringing bell. Maltman’s powerful low notes realized fully the Germanic musical influences that underscore the drama of the tale. The mood changed sharply in Duparc’s setting of Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage”. Here, over Martineau’s shimmering accompaniment, the singer bids his beloved sail with him to a perfect place of “luxe, calme et volupté”. In “Le Manoir de Rosemonde”, which opens and concludes with a ‘riding’ piano motif reminiscent of Schubert’s “Erlkönig”, the protagonist laments that in his arduous journey through life he has never found the “blue manor” where love resides. Finally, in the lovely “Phidylé”, the poet describes in highly sensual terms the verdant beauties of nature, repeatedly bidding his beloved to ‘repose’. In this song, as in “L’invitation au voyage”, Maltman evoked the tenderness of the lover’s wooing as well as the serenity he promises his beloved.

Maltman sang Hahn’s romantic “À Chloris” as a serenade to the audience, with which he maintained eye contact. His juxtaposition of the delicate melodic vocal line with the piano’s repeating Baroque bass figure gave the song a timeless quality. In Emile Paladilhe’s “Psyché”, set to a Corneille text in which Cupid sings of his love for Psyche, the classical language of the poem contrasts interestingly with the more-modern character of the music.

Debussy’s cycle of three songs, “Le Promenoir des deux amants”, is less well known than those included in Maltman’s Hyperion recording of Debussy Songs. The songs have a more subdued tonality than the preceding pair, seeming to float weightlessly overhead, and Maltman captured their delicacy admirably.

The programme ended with three bawdy songs from Poulenc’s Chansons gaillardes. Maltman conveyed the humour of both words and music, concluding with “La Belle jeunesse”, urging men to love but not marry, with singer and pianist at the gallop in perfect tandem.

Maltman offered his appreciative audience a pair of encores: Schumann’s “Du bist wie eine Blume”, and Flanders and Swann’s “The Gnu”, which sent everyone home laughing.

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