Powerful and Stirring Schubert from Maltman and Johnson

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schubert Project. Settings of Schiller and Goethe: Christopher Maltman (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 14.10.2014 

Elysium, D584
Der Kampf, D594
Dithyrambe, D801
Das Geheimnis, D793
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D583
An den Frühling, D587
Die Bürgschaft, D246
Die Götter Greichenlands, D677
Ganymed, D544
Prometheus, D674
Szene aus Faust, D126
Geheimnis, D719
Versunken, D715
Der Fischer, D225
Rastlose Liebe, D138
An den Mond, D296
Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768
Willkommen und Abschied (first version), D767


This year’s Oxford Lieder Festival has been turned over to a complete traversal of the songs of Schubert, and this is now well and truly underway. Apart from comprising a survey of one of the most rewarding treasuries of classical music (keeping company with Bach’s cantatas and Haydn’s symphonies) this series will also constitute a roster of many of the most prominent lieder singers active today. Christopher Maltman is one of these, and he was partnered by one of the most distinguished Schubertians, Graham Johnson, who has made it his life’s work to perform and research the Austrian composer’s songs. Indeed, his complete recording of the Schubert songs must rank as one of the finest achievements in recorded music.

The recital featured settings of Schiller in the first half, and Goethe in the second. Schubert has often been criticised for the comparatively mediocre quality of the texts he chose to set, but he can hardly be faulted in his decision to set the poems of two of foremost German-speaking writers of his time.

Maltman’s singing was characterised by his resolutely sonorous, declamatory manner of delivery. This worked well in the dramatic songs, or in dramatic or violent episodes, whether in the unsettling vision of the ‘Group from Hades’ (Gruppe aus dem Tartarus), Prometheus’s raving against the callousness and indifference of the gods in the eponymous song, or the long narrative poem Die Bürgschaft, where a man stands surety for his condemned friend, should the latter fail to return to his execution after first arranging his sister’s marriage. It would have been good, for instance, to hear Maltman in some of the similarly long, picaresque settings of verses from Ossian, but that will be left to others on 27th October.

Maltman’s rich vocal timbre and deep vibrato did not always succeed in conveying the tenderness or intimacy of other songs. Although the opening of Elysium was mellow and consoling, there was not, perhaps, quite enough rapture to conjure up the heavenly vision to which the words bear witness. Some humour emerged in Dithyrambe, but the rendition might have been lighter on it feet, and Rastlose Liebe (‘Restless Love’) did not need to sound like quite so much of an almighty tussle, since Goethe’s witty and eloquent irony in the lines “I would sooner fight my way through suffering than endure so much of life’s joy” should come across.

However that may be, it would be churlish to dwell on this at the expense of fairly acknowledging the vocal richness Maltman brought to his performances. His grandeur and earnestness of tone benefited Ganymed, where the rocking, almost furtive or sly opening on the piano can sometimes sound merely trivial (not so, of course, in Johnson’s hands), and Maltman gave due weight to the idealism of Schiller’s thought.

On other occasions this translated into a studied, lyrical intensity – if not quite tenderness – for example in An den Frühling (combined with playfulness, too) and Wandrers Nachtlied II (creating a broad musical vista matching the landscape evoked by the words, together with the steady chords held by Johnson in the accompaniment). The deliberately hollow vocal sound for Die Götter Greichenlands was intelligently expressive of the vanished world of the classical gods, and perhaps, by extension, a lament for the loss of theism in the post-Enlightenment age.

Another conspicuous achievement of Maltman’s was his vivid characterisation within songs, such as for the protagonists of the aforementioned Die Bürgschaft, and especially in the Szene aus Faust by taking the part of the choir’s solemn intonation of verses from the Dies irae, and a half falsetto voice for Gretchen. If Dithyrambe had lacked humour, that was certainly not the case in Der Fischer, and the surge and ebb of erotic passion as the poet of Versunken passes his hands through his beloved’s curly locks was skilfully enacted in the music with deft control of rising and falling dynamics. In short, Maltman and Johnson’s partnership made for a powerful and stirring programme.

Curtis Rogers

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