Many Revelations in the Latest Instalment of Wigmore Hall’s Complete Schubert Lieder Survey


Schubert, Complete Songs Christopher Maltman (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano).

Wigmore Hall Emerging Talent event: Birgid Steinburger (soprano); Daniel Johanssen (tenor); Benjamin Appl (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.1.2016. (CC)

Maltman Recital: Szene aus Faust. An den Mond. An die Nachtigall. An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte. Auf den Tod einer Nachtigall. Die Nonne. Die Bürgschaft.

Liane. Fragment aus dem Aeschylus. Liedesend. Rückweg. Alte Liebe wostet nie. Zum Punsche. From the Battlefield: An die Leier. Normans Gesang. Das Heimweh. Romanze des Richard Löwenherz. Der Wallersteiner Lanzknecht beim Trunk

Emerging Talent Recital: Songs and Ballads of Gothic Horror. Der Geistertanz, D15 (fragment); Der Geistertanz, D15a (fragment); Minona, D152; Adelwond und Emma, D211

As a glance at the titles of the songs of this evening’s events confirmed, this was no introduction to Schubert Lieder. Only a small handful of the songs in this latest instalment in Wigmore Hall’s complete survey of all his songs will be at all familiar from single-disc recordings of popular Schubert song. Instead we were gifted a major singer, for the main recital, bringing his insight, along with the astonishing wisdom of Graham Johnson, to repertoire rarely heard.

First, though, we heard from the “Emerging Talent” being lovingly presented by the Wigmore. One of the more lovely aspects of this series is the inclusion of fragments; indications of thought in process, and hints of songs that might have been. So it was that there were two fragments of Der Geistertanz (c1812, D15 and D15a), from the tenor Daniel Johanssen and the baritone Benjamin Appl. The text refers to midnight tolling on a bell, and this is clearly audible in the piano part between verses in the first (lovingly delivered by Johnson). Johanssen has a sweet upper register

The multi-faceted song Minona, D52 (1815), to a text by Friedrich Bertrand, is a ten-minute offering telling of a girl who receives the news of her lover’s death at her father’s hand via a mastiff. The music offers a fascinating vista, its recitative element perhaps pointing towards an operatic bent. The harmonies of the opening are decidedly proto-Wagnerian (they reminded me of the opening of Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan). Birgid Steinberger was a radiant soprano interpreter.  Finally, the 25-minute “opera in the home” (to quote Johnson) Adelwold und Emma (D211, 1815, again to a text by Bertrand), wherein the parts of the knight and his two lovers are well delineated. Johnson referred to “filmic” elements, and Schubert’s micro-reactions to the text do indeed support this thesis. The chivalric emotions portrayed reminded this listener of those in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. It was a terrific experience with splendid performances all round.

The main recital included an extended song also: the quarter-of-an-hour Die Burgschaft (D246, 1815, to a text by Schiller). But first, in this chronological presentation, we heard a sequence of songs from 1814-15. The Szene aus Faust (D126, 1814) dates from two months after Gretchen am Spinnrade and is a wholly different proposition. The initial idea was a piece scored for voices, chorus and orchestra, the work finally crystallised into a solo song in which the soloist takes on the roles of Evil Spirit (“Böse Geist”), Gretchen and even Chorus (the latter being the passages in Latin from the “Dies Irae”, intoned with deep seriousness and against a chordal background). Maltman’s resonant voice enabled the drama to speak with full force – he positively spat out the word “Blut”. Gretchen is accorded the higher register (inevitably, one supposes); the Chorus gets the lower register. It is a remarkable piece (Irmgard Seefried left a fascinating recording, with Erik Werba), and one that enlarges on Schubert’s use of multiple voices within one song (most famously found, perhaps, in Erlkönig and Der Zwerg).

The Goethe was followed by no less than five settings of Hölty. If there was a well-known song in this recital it was An den Mond (D193, 1815), with its accompaniment that seems to correspond to Beethoven’s so-called “Moonlight” sonata. Maltman spun the initial line most beautifully, responding excitedly, too, to the faster, slightly breathless sections. Far more enigmatic was An die Nachtigall (D196, 1815). Even more glorious, as a piece, was a song hitherto unknown to me, An die Apfelbäume (D197, 1815). This song breathes the easy elegance of Schubert at his best. It also acted as an interlude between a live nightingale (D196) and a dead one (Auf der Tod einer Nachtigall D201, 1815), which itself led on to Die Nonne (D208), another long song that revealed Maltman’s ability to narrate so perfectly.

So on to the hefty offering that is Die Burgschaft, a one-man opera that sets lines by Schiller. Drama really is foregrounded here, and the piano part often sounds like it is actually a piano reduction. Yet it works, particularly when there’s such a sense of involvement, as here. Maltman’s ringing top on “Zeus” will live long in the memory; also notable was the singer’s stamina. And there was a second half to go …

A sequence of six Mayrhofer songs led to the segment of the programme called “From the Battlefield”. The natural unfolding of Liane (D298, 1815) led to the much more complex Fragment aus dem Aeschylus (D450b, 1816), a satisfyingly challenging song for both performers and audience.  Cushioned thereafter by the dark shadows of Liedesend (D473b, 1816), the gentle Rückweg (D476, 1816) and the delicious Alte Liebe rostet nie (D477, 1816), it was left to the brash Zum Punsche (D492, 1816) to round off the Mayrhofer component of the evening.

It was a great idea to bunch together songs “From the Battlefield” to close the evening. Franz von Brachmann, after Anacreon, provided the text for An die Leier (D737, 1822-23). If not as overtly dramatic and musically shocking as Matthias Goerne and Ingo Metzmacher in their recording on Harmonia Mundi, this still came across as an opening to a  song which, in common parlance these days, might justifiably be called “rock hard”. The subsequent melting into lyricism was simply splendid; the return of the granitic opening, shocking.

One of the piano rhythms of An die Leier seemed to form the link to Normans Gesang (D846, 1825, a translation of Sir Walter Scott by Adam Storck). After such a rollicking experience the simple octaves that open Das Heimweh (D851b, 1825) came as balm. The piano part to Romanze des Richard Löwenherz (D907, ?1826) again sounds suspiciously like an orchestral reduction at times. It breathed a terrific ongoing momentum thanks to Johnson’s contribution; the final programmed song, Der Wallensteiner Lanzknecht beim Trunk (D931, 1827) was a robust way to close.

The encore, Gruppe aus Tartarus, was a better-known song than much of what we had heard in the main programme. It was, of course, beautiful and impeccably delivered. This was a great evening, full of revelations.

Colin Clarke

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