Thomas Oliemans in Recital: an Amfortas in the Making?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Strauss, Duparc, and Debussy: Thomas Oliemans (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.7.2012 (MB)

Mahler:  Frühlingsmorgen
Hans und Grethe
Scheiden und Meiden
Strauss:  Traum durch die Dämmerung
Duparc: Chanson triste
L’Invitation au voyage
Le Galop
Debussy: Trois ballades de Villon
Mahler:  Rückert-Lieder

This was my first encounter with baritone Thomas Oliemans, though certainly not with the indefatigable Malcolm Martineau. Oliemans already has an impressive C.V., including a Salzburg Festival debut in 2005 (Gonsalvo Fieschi in Die Gezeichneten) and recent debuts at Covent Garden, Strasbourg, and for Scottish Opera. He is clearly also an impressive recitalist, as this performance made clear.

In a wonderfully constructed programme, Mahler appeared as alpha and omega, the first set comprising songs from his twenties. Frühlingsmorgen immediately displayed a ready communicative gift that went beyond the excellent German one tends to expect from Dutch singers. Working with the language, getting beneath the skin of the song, is more important still. Martineau’s handling of the intricacies of the piano part was equally impressive. Erinnerung showed an intensity and darkness of the soul not hitherto experienced: a matter of the songs’ nature than the performances, Oliemans shading his response intelligently and movingly. Intimations of Kindertotenlieder surfaced in Schieden und Meiden, a Wunderhorn song, the hushed stillness of a child’s passing a telling contrast – at least apparently, and that ambiguity registered powerfully.

Differences between Mahler and Strauss were subtly rendered apparent rather than emphasised, which is just as it should be. Strauss’s different manner of sophistication – no naïveté here, secondary or otherwise – was combined with a more evident, or perhaps ‘traditional’, lyricism, though both composers are surely two of the highest ranking princes of Lieder. Raptness in the performance of Traum durch die Dämmerung was so finely achieved in part because the song was so clearly conceived as a whole, with a true sense of slowly pursuing the dusk (Dämmerung) of the title. Being drawn into ‘ein blaues, mildes Licht’ at the end was accomplished with a near-heavenly vocal pianissimo. Nachtgang likewise showed a proper sense of a formal and emotional whole, even to the extent that, as ever when faced with religion or even the metaphysical, Strauss tends towards a materialistic emptiness, as in the likeness here to saint, ‘mild, mild und grsoss, rein wie die liebe Sonne’. Befreit did not initially soar quite as would be ideal with Strauss – it is arguably easier for sopranos to do so in any case – but the second stanza rectified matters.

The Duparc set showed Oliemans to have an equally impressive sense of French pronunciation and style. (What a glaring contrast with some of the singers in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens!) Chanson triste quite rightly benefited from a Wagnerian tinge to its lyricism: there are many more routes from Wagner than those to Mahler and Strauss, Tristan here intriguingly, deliciously apparent. Likewise, of course, the Baudelaire setting, L’Invitation au voyage, its music most definitely ‘luxe, calme, et volupté,’ from both artists concerned. The setting of the sun was ecstatic, but musically so, rather than a forced imposition upon the text; Liszt too came to mind. Tristan again reared its head in Extase, not least through Martineau’s handling of Duparc’s harmonic progressions. A slight Gallic distancing was nevertheless maintained. The ghosts of Liszt and Schubert (Erlkönig in both cases) haunted yet never overwhelmed Le Galop and its transportation, not merely physical, into ‘l’inconnu profond’.

Debussy’s Trois ballades de François Villon opened the second half. Perhaps Oliemans’s rolled ‘r’ was more Dutch in quality than French; otherwise, the performance continued to be stylistically impeccable. (Again, I could not help but draw a contrast with some of the Italianate horrors experienced on the Royal Opera’s stage recently.) Martineau showed himself fully equal to the exigencies of Debussy’s piano writing. A Pelléas-like, ‘parlant’ style, with added mediævalism, was the hallmark of the ‘Ballade que Villon fait à la request de sa mère pour prier Nostre-Dame’. That quality, which so readily degenerated in the hands of lesser successors, was in Debussy’s hands properly magical, heightened by touching, yet sparing use of the head-voice. Quiet ecstasy – ‘La joye avoir fais-noy haulte Déesse’ – was to be heard in the conclusion. The ‘Ballade des femmes de Paris’ was nicely dry, in more than one sense. Oliemans even summoned up an authentically French shrug during the catalogue of place names: ‘Ay-je beaucoup de lieux compris?’

Mahler returned with his Rückert-Lieder. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ had touching inwardness, though its more outward protestations fared less well, proving less ecstatic than would be ideal. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ was another example of fine navigation to a tricky piano part. ‘Um Mitternacht’: it is almost impossible to say something about the song that does not sound irredeemably clichéd, but its desolate stillness was movingly conveyed. Again, its more external protestations were somewhat less happy, intonation an occasional problem, at least until a truly resplendent final stanza, but the Innigkeit was spot on throughout. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ requires absolute command of the piano line; that it received, spun as if on silken thread, which in a way it is. Inwardness was very much the hallmark also of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, though an occasional tendency towards crooning should be resisted.

Morgen, an encore I had hoped for, returned us to Strauss, after which came an initially vehement and then lightly stylish Wolf Abschied, by turns Wagnerian and (Johann) Straussian. We may just have a future Amfortas here.

Mark Berry