Hubris Meets Humility as Duo Deftly Clown Around Korngold’s Songs.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Strauss, Korngold, Mahler: Christopher Maltman and Simon Lepper, Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff, 4.4. 2014 (LJ)

Strauss, Five Lieder Op. 15
Korngold, Songs of a Clown, Op. 29
Mahler, Ruckert Lieder.

Singing Strauss, Korngold and Mahler, Christopher Maltman accompanied by the incomparable Simon Lepper charmed and cheered the audience at Cardiff’s RWCMD. Dressed in a dapper sage green suit and suede shoes, Maltman presented himself as a suave individual. Not a victim of style over substancen he sang with conviction and magnanimity; his look was impressionable and sound powerful. This commanding presence contrasted well with Lepper, whose appearance and performance was rather more understated, though certainly no less compelling. Throughout the concert, Lepper was sharp and attentive; his engagement with each lieder and his innate sense of rhythm made each song unified and whole. Together, the duo gave a recital of tightly phrased and energised lieder resulting in rapturous applause.

An idea of Maltman’s full-bodied tenacity and verve can be gleaned from the following excerpt taken from an article for The Guardian in 2008. Speaking of his idea of performance, Maltman brashly states: “When I’m on stage, I’m kind of trying to reclaim the feeling I hand when I was riding my bike when I was 10. Me and the bike were one thing. I used to go into raptures, pulling wheelies and skidding, and I just felt so at home. I love to have that same feeling in music: when I’ve got it in my hand I can do what I want with it. And I feel I’ve got a lot to say about it. It pleases me to take pieces of music that I love and shine a fucking great spotlight on them; it gives me great emotional pleasure and physical satisfaction

Herein lies Maltman’s forte and fallibility: his bulldog bravura is captivating, but it sometimes lacks the acute attentiveness necessary when singing delicate songs in an intimate setting such as the Dora Stoutzker Hall. However, thanks to Lepper’s persistent movement and subtle influence, Maltman did not give such a selfishly or obliquely spotlit performance, and he managed to leave most of his self-confessed ‘egocentric baritone mode’ backstage.

The most striking performances of the afternoon were of Richard Strauss’s Lob des Leidens from his Five Lieder, Op. 15, Erich Korngold’s O, Mistress Mine and For the rain it raineth every day from his Songs of a Clown, Op. 29, and Gustav Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from his Ruckert Lieder. In each of these songs, the usually robust Maltman imbued each note with ‘einen linden Duft’ (a gentle fragrance). Thus, Maltman’s voice reverberated with an admixture of courage and delicacy and appeared as ‘des Herbstes goldenem Licht’ (the golden light of autumn). Managing to sound expressive, unfledged and modest, Maltman was humorous in For the rain it raineth every day and controllably conveyed an utterly discombobulated sense of loss and unknown in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.

Composed in 1886, Strauss’s Five Lieder are sensitive and warm pieces infused with an unashamedly Romantic sentimentality. With candour and vitality Maltman and Lepper evoked both the dark bellows and more lyrical passages of Winternacht, adding a mischievous edge to an otherwise cautious composition. In Heimkehr, the duo managed to give a sense of heartening authenticity to the potentially glib imagery of swaying branches, a setting sun, and homecoming until ‘Stille sich senkt auf den Hain’ (silence sinks down upon the grove).

Based on texts from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Korngold’s Songs of a Clown illustrate both his melodic virtuosity and boundless sensitivity. Confiscated by the Nazi’s when they searched his possessions upon entering Austria, Korngold later reconstructed his Shakespearean songs for Max Reinhardt’s production Shakespeare’s Women, Clowns and Songs in 1941. Replete with willowy and svelte melodies and dramatic irony, these songs tested Maltman’s abilities of characterisation. Rising to the challenge, Maltman (aided by Lepper’s devoted assistance) conveyed the dark foolishness of a clown’s trickery in a sylphlike manner. His performance of Come away death is profoundly delicate, which, if it were not for his sheer untrammelled intention, could have slipped into melodrama. Despite his voice breaking on the last note of O, Mistress Mine, Maltman’s transfixing story telling qualities were not lost.

Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder is a song cycle based on the poems by the German orientalist Friedrich Ruckert, originally published in Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven Songs of Latter Days). Through lucid interweaving of the accompaniment and vocal lines, thoughts were projected ‘out past the dark barriers’ (At midnight) and a sense of withdrawal from unprofitable worldly excesses was realised in the final song I am lost to the world. Maltman and Lepper successfully evoked Mahler’s sense of tranquillity as he retracts from the humdrum materiality and turmoil of the everyday and becomes absorbed in the more central tenets of his life: heaven, feeling and music. As Maltman sung the final stanza, he demonstrated how a performer with such a determined embodiment of character could unshackle himself to convey a sense of quandary and letting go. Maltman was quietly passionate when he sung:

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song.

Ending with finality and stillness, Maltman and Lepper returned once more for an encore of Strauss’s Zueignung. After joking that his voice had ‘finally warmed up’, Maltman – who, if I am to criticise, was perhaps at times a little too bellied with bombast – capped the concert a resoundingly strong and dynamic performance.

Lucy Jeffery

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