Cheltenham Music Festival 2011 – A menacing Boesch and a demented Spence stun audiences

Loewe, Schubert, Mahler : Florian Boesch (baritone) with Roger Vignoles, Pittville Pump Room, 30.6.2011 (RJ)


Schumann, Janáček : Toby Spence (tenor), Helen Sherman (mezzo-soprano) with Julian Milford (piano). Pittville Pump Room, 3.7.2011 (RJ)

The horror film is a very distinctive genre in the art of cinema, and during the first of these recitals I started to wonder if there was an equivalent in music – horror songs (or Schrecklieder?) perhaps. If so, the equivalent of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff has to be the Austrian baritone Florian Boesch.

This was for me a rare encounter with Carl Loewe, known as “the north German Schubert” – a contemporary of the Viennese composer who lived twice as long. Loewe was clearly addicted to the narrative ballad, and a number of his ballad settings featured in this recital were spine-chilling. Der Erlkönig, for instance, is not as relentless and pulsating as Schubert’s version at first, but it makes the grim climax all the more dramatic.

Boesch adopted a more nonchalant stance in the Scottish ballad, Tom der Reimer, taking delight in the hero’s involvement with the glamorous Queen of the Elves. But Sir Oluf in a Danish ballad fares far less well than Tom when he encounters the Erlkönig’s daughter on the eve of his wedding. Boesch seemed to live every moment of this dramatic tale, assuming the persona of each character in turn yet subtly insinuating that a tragic conclusion is inevitable. His tone was even more sinister in Edward, another Scottish ballad, in which a mother cross-examines her son about his blood-spattered sword. The tension built up as each lie is uncovered, and the blood curdling curse at the end in which the dreadful plot is revealed sent an uncomfortable shiver down the spine.

Fortunately for our nerves not all the recital was devoted to shock therapy and Florian Boesch demonstrated that he has more endearing “teddybearish” traits. He gave two gentle renditions of Goethe’s Wanderers Nachtlieder (Wanderer’s Nightsongs) to settings by Loewe, and offered some consoling Schubert as well. Hoffnung and Der Wanderer an den Mond had some beautifully controlled pianissimos, and there was a deep sense of spirituality in Der Kreuzzug (The Crusade) in which a monk watches the crusaders leave for the Holy Land and contemplates his own spiritual crusade.

Humour invaded the second part of the recital in Mahler’s Des Antonius Fischpredigt (St Anthony’s sermon to the fish) in which the goodly saint finding his church empty decides to preach to the fish in the river. Florian Boesch related the tale with relish, ruefully observing that the preaching failed to change their sinful habits one iota. There was a similar twinkle in the eye in Lob des hohen Verstands about a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale adjudicated by a donkey. The baritone’s braying sounded more realistic than any donkey’s.

The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Journeyman) are 100% Mahler – he wrote the verses and the settings – and they provide an important insight into his feelings of alienation. Ging heut morgen übers Feld (I walked across the fields this morning) begins jauntily enough but in the end happiness eludes him; while in Ich hab ein glühend Messer (I have a red-hot knife) the memory of his beloved never ceases to haunt him. So passionate and at the same time reticent, Florian Boesch conveyed the emotion with feeling and candour. In the world of song he is the consummate all-rounder.

Behind every successful Lieder recital there lurks a fine pianist, but I very nearly forgot to mention Roger Vignoles. Vignoles’ problem is that he is such a good pianist that you forget he is there; he is completely invisible. Yet his musical intelligence is deep-seated and in every respect he was the perfect partner for the larger-than-life Herr Boesch.

In Schumann song recitals the pianist really does need to be visible, since he is often the person who has the last word (or should I say note?). Julian Milford was definitely the right man for the job in Schumann’s Dichterliebe sung by Toby Spence three days later, and he brought just the right balance between passion and restraint that the songs needed.

There is a certain ambivalence about Heine’s poetry, and I often have difficulty in deciding whether he playing the detached observer and indulging in irony or whether he does really feel the emotions he writes about so aptly and imaginatively. Schumann prefers to take the poems at face value, and with such wonderful verses at his disposal, one can hardly blame him.

Toby Spence looked every inch the lovelorn poet, and his voice was ideal for Dichterliebe as he ranged from the carefree outlook of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (In the lovely month of May) to the grumpiness of Ich grolle nicht (I’m not complaining), from the dreaminess and phantasy of Aus alten Märchen klingt es to the utter desolation of Ich hab in Traum geweinet (I wept in my dream). This is a truly wonderful work and with its wide emotional scope is a popular choice with tenors the world over. However, not all of them can attain the high standards of Toby Spence who made the cycle his own. Well, almost. Mr Milford often concluded a song with a comment on the piano, including an eloquent piano epilogue at the end of the work which takes over when words prove inadequate.

Dichterliebe was a comparatively mild affair compared with the other offering of the morning. Poets are used to suffering in silence or recollecting emotion in tranquillity, but the hero of Janáček’s Diary of One who Disappeared is a country lad who comes under the spell of a gypsy girl, faces rejection by his family and community, and  simply can’t cope with the problem.

There is a starkness and rawness about the music which is so different from Schumann’s subtle harmonies. Compared with German with its wonderful vowel sounds, the Czech language relies more on consonants and sounds more brittle, and Spence exploited these colourful, explosive sounds to excellent effect.

Right from the first note he conveyed the impression of a man demented and desperate, whose life has changed irrevocably as a result of his close encounter with this woman. His prospects are diminished, but there is no turning back, and although he sweetly consoles his oxen that he will not abandon them, we know that his destiny. Is beyond his control.

But just as the audience might have been thinking “he doth protest too much”, there was a sudden change of mood and the object of his affections emerged from the audience on to the platform to sing Welcome, my handsome one.

At last one could see what all the fuss was about and many were impressed. Helen Sherman was utterly convincing in the part of the gypsy with her creamy mezzo-soprano voice and beguiling presence. The wistful song which followed, God all-powerful, God eternal, with a trio of women’s voices, was enough to melt any man’s heart, and it was fitting at this juncture that the two lovers should come together in a heart-rending duet. After she slipped away, Spence reiterated the lad’s turbulent state which was underlined in a jumpy, abrupt piano interlude.

The concluding poem in which he bids farewell to home and family to live with his beloved and their son is somewhat ambivalent and the listener is left to ponder the young man’s fateful choice. While one can envisage problems ahead, for the couple, I can’t help thinking that I’d rather be seduced by a gipsy girl than get entangled with the Erlkönig’s daughter!

Janáček’s cantata – the epithet song cycle is misleading – is a powerful work searing in its emotional directness, and was a triumph for Toby Spence. That he should perform two contrasting masterpieces in one recital with such sensitivity and distinction ( in one recital)  marks him out as a singer of rare genius.

Roger Jones