Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano) at Wigmore Hall, London,

Fauré, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Hahn, and Mahler: Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.4.2011 (MB)

Fauré – Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’, op.58

Schumann – Zwei Venetianische Lieder, op.25/17 and 18

Schubert – Gondelfahrer, D 808

Mendelssohn – Venetianisches Gondellied, op.57 no.5

Hahn – Venezia: Chansons en dialecte vénetien

Schubert – L’incanto degli occhi, D 902/1

Il traditor deluso, D 902/2

Il modo di prender moglie, S 902/3

Du bist die Ruh, D 776

Lachen und Weinen, D 777

Sei mir gegrüßt, D 741

Mahler – Rückert Lieder

This recital, I am afraid, turned out to be rather less than the sum of its parts, lesser parts somewhat dragging down the rest. Malcolm Martineau proved a dependable pianist, often more than that. Christopher Maltman was generally an engaging soloist, though there were a few too many intonational problems to be able to disregard them as occasional slips. Nevertheless, the programme was the greater problem, not least in that we appeared to have two smaller recitals joined together; one pertained to impressions of Venice, the other to songs with texts by Friedrich Rückert, with Schubert’s Italian Metastasio settings offering a not entirely convincing bridge. Luca Pisaroni had recently employed those very same Schubert songs in a Wigmore Hall recital that was far more coherent as a programme – and often better sung too.

Fauré opened the recital with his five Verlaine settings, ‘de Venise’. Much of this composer’s output I stubbornly fail to ‘get’; others talk of his subtlety where I tend to find blandness. Popular favourites such as the Requiem and the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande continue to offer greater interest; perhaps I am destined forever, or at least for a while longer, to remain uninitiated. To be fair, not everything sounded bland here: the fourth song, ‘A Clymène’ certainly offered stranger harmonies, though I could not really understand them or where they were going, and they sounded a good deal stranger when Maltman’s tuning slipped. Moreover, Martineau’s evocation of the mandolin in the opening song that bears the instrument’s name was quite magical in its way; he also captured very well the (slightly) fragrant nonchalance of ‘C’est l’éxtase’, though Fauré seems to have a different understanding of ecstasy from mine. Maltman’s French was better than that of many, though word endings were not always perfectly sounded: what a difficult language this is for singers! The baritone also brought a fine sustained line to these mélodies, especially to ‘En sourdine’, whose closing nightingale song benefited from a touching use of head voice (an effect that was perhaps employed a little too readily in many of the songs to come).

Four gondoliers’ songs followed: two from Schumann, one from Schubert, and one from Mendelssohn. The Schumann songs proved a highlight of the recital, Maltman immediately sounding more at home with the Lieder­­-style, and not just in terms of language. From the first setting (both texts are by Thomas Moore, translated by Ferdinand Freiligrath), the beautifully shaded repetitions of ‘Leis’’ in the first stanza and ‘sacht!’ in the second could hardly have been better accomplished. Martineau’s command of rhythm securely underpinned the first, whilst the charming, almost Schubertian – in Taubenpost mode – manner of the second delighted. Mendelssohn’s Venetianisches Gondellied (again Moore-Freiligrath) bewitched with its barcarolle rhythm and evocative minor-mode harmonies whose implications extend further beyond the merely pictorial than one might expect. The best of Mendelssohn’s songs are better than many realise.

Reynaldo Hahn’s six songs in Venetian dialect were frankly tedious. Again, the subtleties of which some speak quite passed me by – and whilst I suspect that with Fauré, a lack of receptiveness on my part is a factor, I simply cannot imagine what might be of interest here to anyone. Gerald Larner’s comparison with Poulenc in his programme note seemed to me wide of the mark, to say the least. The opening ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ brought from Maltman a more operatic delivery, akin to a gondolier regaling his tourists. At least ‘La Biondina in gondoleta’ and ‘Che pecà!’ are less emoting, though the former seems merely bland – and prolonged. The latter has a jaunty rhythm in the piano interludes, of which Martineau made the most, and benefited from Maltman’s forthright, highly masculine tone, though he missed his first entry and had to re-start the song. A ringing final ‘ciel’ in the final song, ‘La primavera’, might have delighted devotees, but I was ready for the interval bar.

Schubert’s Metastasio settings opened the second half. ‘L’incanto degli occhi’ benefited from lightness of touch on the part of both artists, though the contrasting section was perhaps taken a little too operatically by Maltman. Certainly Pisaroni in the aforementioned recital had offered something more suggestive, less blatant. Richly-coloured accompagnato was evoked in the recitative section of ‘Il traditor deluso’; Martineau even managed to make the piano part to the aria sound as if it were a piano reduction from an orchestral original. High (melo-)drama marked Maltman’s once again operatic delivery. If not Mozart, then at least Rossini was pleasingly evoked in the buffo tone of ‘Il modo dip render moglie’.

Du bist die Ruh, the first of the three Schubert Rückert settings selected, received a rapt performance, along with the Schumann songs, perhaps the finest of the evening, Martineau’s piano part heart-rendingly limpid, Maltman using words as well as notes to touch. That magical final-stanza modulation truly opened up new vistas, setting an apt precedent for Mahler. The account of Sei mir gegrüßt was to be commended for not playing to the gallery, but I wondered if it was just a little too low-key.

If Maltman had arguably used the head voice to touch a little too much, it sounded apt indeed in Mahler’s ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft,’ the first of his Rückert-Lieder. It finely matched the weaving of harmonic magic in the piano, though later on insecurities of tuning slightly marred the performance: I wondered whether the tessitura was less than ideal for Maltman’s voice. There was nevertheless just the right sense of wonder to be heard: I was put in mind of the ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried. Intonation again proved variable in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ but there was a proper sense of something darker than a mere time of day being at stake in ‘Um Mitternacht’: a true midnight desolation of the soul. Here, though, whilst I had tried my best not to do so, I could not help but miss Mahler’s orchestra. Maltman showed a creditable willingness to harshen his tone where necessary, for instance when speaking of man’s afflictions, forsaking mere beauty. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ again made one realise what one was missing in orchestral terms: not Martineau’s fault, but in what might seem the quintessence in miniature of Mahler’s variegated orchestral writing, the piano inevitably seems second choice. However, the stillness of the final stanza was judged finely indeed. To offer arias from Verdi’s I due Foscari and Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda might have fitted the ‘Venetian’ theme but seemed jarring at best after Mahler.

Mark Berry