Florian Boesch & Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall – Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin

Die schöne Müllerin, D795

Florian Boesch (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 21 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Florian Boesch. Photograph: Stefan von der DekenIt is still possible to encounter distinguished singers who treat Die schöne Müllerin as a florilegium of bonbons and overlook the dark irony of Müller’s verse. Whereas in Winterreise, Schubert’s subsequent cycle, the hero’s mental deterioration would be unmistakable amid the music’s psychological wasteland, here the temperature tends deceptively to the warm; and only during the hallucinatory penultimate song, ‘Der Müller und der Bach’, do wintry clouds gather in force. It takes a singer of Florian Boesch’s dramatic boldness to trace the whole of the lovelorn hero’s slow descent into delusion, madness and death.

The Austrian baritone is a method-actor among singers. While his voice could hardly be called beautiful, its extraordinary expressive range allowed him to gnaw on the composer’s stark depiction of mental fragmentation. Indeed, at times it felt as if the protagonist was reliving his turmoil from a psychiatrist’s couch, and by the final song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, there was a sensation that we had intruded upon private torment. For their devastating performance Boesch and Malcolm Martineau, the taut, generous pianist, had perceived the songs as a single entity and performed them as an opera.

Malcolm Martineau. Photograph: martineau.infoBarely an hour earlier the opening song, ‘Das Wandern’, had been almost jaunty in its breezy (though misplaced) optimism. Boesch had placed himself centre-stage, relaxed and casual, his fingers lightly interlocked in a way that left the thumbs free to colour the text. Yet, even here at the outset, hints of foreboding were already present in Martineau’s dark-weighted use of the left-hand. These early songs call for nimbler vocal resources than this singer possesses – his soft high notes were not always well covered and some of Schubert’s leaps in this cycle sit more comfortably for a tenor than they do for such an emphatic baritone – but by the time Boesch reached ‘Der Neugierige’ a visceral characterisation had taken hold and such reservations faded into insignificance.

Both singer and pianist brought a nervy, contemporary attitude to the popular ‘Ungeduld’ and even the simple, strophic utterance of ‘Des Müllers Blumen’ found Boesch searching out every shred of drama. Once a febrile momentum had evoked the onset of despair in ‘Mein!’, Martineau (in commanding yet selfless form) propelled the ensuing sequence of songs through a hurtling expressive freefall from which the singer only recovered lucidity at the evocation of withered flowers in the desolate ‘Trockne Blumen’.

There was nothing bucolic about this account of Die schöne Müllerin and we were granted no catharsis at its close. Given that by then the audience felt as drained as the artists, the idea of an encore would have been unthinkable; thankfully, the gunfire sound of unbridled applause served just as well to shake the weight from our collective shoulders. It had been emotional.

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