Schubert exploration with Graham Johnson and Robin Tritschler at Wigmore Hall  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Robin Tritschler (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano): Livestreamed from Wigmore Hall, London, 6.10.2020. (JB)

Schubert – ‘O Quell, was strömst du rasch und wild’ D874; ‘Der Jüngling am Bache’ D30; ‘Im Frühling’ D882; ‘An mein Herz’ D860; ‘Nachtstück’ D672; ‘Erinnerung’ D101; ‘Memnon’ D541; ‘Philoktet’ D540; ‘Atys’ D585; ‘Der Geistertanz’ D116; ‘Auflösung’ D807; ‘Der Musensohn’ D764; ‘Am Flusse’ D766; ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ D162; ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ D224; ‘Ganymed’ D544; ‘Liebhaber in allen Gestalten’ D558; ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ D767

In an audience with the Dalai Lama, His Holiness mentioned the truism of there not being much difference between life and death: of each being the face of the other. Schubert knew that. I doubt Schubert’s ever exploring Buddhism. But there is overwhelming evidence that Buddhism explored him.

Notice how in Schubert – what we in the West have been taught to think of as polarities – are unities: joy is shot through with pain and vice versa, love with fear, simplicity with complexity, improbability with mundane, and so forth. All of this is audible in Schubert’s instrumental, as well as his vocal music.

Franz Schubert rarely travelled. What he indisputably explored was himself. The world must be grateful for that exploration. It is all in the music.

Nowhere more so than the opening lied of this recital – a mere forty-one seconds of an unfinished song. Like many Viennese, Franz probably drank innumerable cups of coffee (is the apocryphal tale of his having scribbled out Hark, hark the lark on the back of a menu card true? It fits what we know.) Yet still there is the soul of Franz in the unfinished symphony or in this lied, among many other unfinished works.

We cannot live a life at the same time as Franz Schubert. But we are fortunate in living a life at the same time as Graham Johnson. With vigilance and excellence as pianist and musicologist. he has made these works his own. And through him, ours. Opportunities which were not available in Schubert’s own time. In 2014 Yale University brought out his three-volume study of Schubert’s songs and vocal ensembles and their poets. That almost surpassed his complete recordings of all Schubert’s lieder with the UK’s finest interpreters of that art.

In those forty-one seconds – O Quell, was strömst du rasch und wild (O flower, O stream, why do you surge so fast and wild) is a conversation between a flower and the stream passing by. (Schubert has a similar conversation of inanimate objects in the final lied of Die schöne Müllerin song cycle). The poet here is Ernst Schultze. There is no question mark behind the seemingly rhetorical question. It is clear that the poet is thinking aloud. And what he sees in this quivering image he is moved to find within himself.

Agatha Christie would have made a mystery novel out of these seconds. A poet innocently sees a stream. How powerful it is against the gentle flower on its banks. Is the stream going to destroy the flower with its power? Or is the flower going to convert the stream to its ‘religion’?

Graham Johnson used to play the four-bar piano introduction again at the end of the lied. That introduction was left by Schubert. But today Graham just left it hanging in the air. This gets my gentle applause: the over-to-the audience bit. (But beware Graham: the same ploy – you decide – was only tried once by Mrs Christie. Thousands of her fans deserted her. She never tried it again. And so soon wooed her followers back, returning to her wily, well-spun plots.)

Schiller’s poem ‘Der Jüngling am Bache’ has a similar storyline. Another young man and a brook attracted by the business of understanding one another. Robin Tritschler tells the story as well as Ian Bostridge. But with much less bodily movement. He uses his hands but can also look sorry that he is using them. His lower and higher registers can sometimes come across as two singers: valuable in many of the songs. Recently he has been singing much Bach: an admirable preparation for the more romantic Schubert. The Tritschler breathing is so well controlled that it appears to have no control at all. Admirable. We can believe in this storyteller.

Spring is celebrated in ‘Im Früling’. What works so well is Schubert, through the pianist, gently moving the celebration along, albeit with some small threatening glitches. But they never get very far. Who said, a composer is not someone who can write a good tune but one who knows what to do with a tune when he’s written it. That is Schubert. Here are variations of a small fragment of tune. The ear excitedly waiting for the next variation. There is a wonderful tapering of the phrases from Johnson, which in its turn draws attention to the many new starts. Breath in. Breath out. And celebrate.

Years ago, I found ‘Im Früling’ valuable in helping a disturbed thirteen-year-old girl – let us call her Mary – to believe in herself. I had only heard Mary’s voice in class, which is to say, not at all. Her therapist wrote to the school to say that Mary wanted to be a singer, but she understood that the Music Master (me) was a dragon. Would I be able to exchange my dragon costume for a kindly, helper’s dress? I began to give her private lessons and discovered she had indeed a fine voice. And no confidence in herself. But she did have a sense of humour. By which I mean a sense of her own ridiculousness. We improvised. I would sing a phrase. And she had to sing a reply. And vice versa. One day I sang for her ‘Im Früling’ but in an English translation I had. The school didn’t teach German.

She loved it. She said she wanted to learn it. And learn it she did. I said it would be a good idea to sing this at the boarding school’s Sunday evening assembly. She was nervous. But she agreed.

I would normally have given the piano accompaniment to one of the sixth formers. I understood that Mary still needed my own support and were she to have a memory loss, I would be there to cover up. The Sunday arrived. She had a lot of friends. But none of them knew she was a singer. The French master was amazed at Mary’s talent. What a charming piece. Was it a folk song? I smiled with my kindest try-again smile. It wasn’t Schubert?  he asked in disbelief Indeed it was sir. Breath in. Breath out. Celebrate.

‘Nachtstück’ (‘Nocturne’, but maybe better translated as Night-piece) has nothing Chopinesque. Mythology intermingles with Gothic horror when death threatening a brave old man, who takes up his harp resolves to join the final sleep. A Mayrhofer poem given over to voice and piano for reassurances. Nicely delivered too.

‘Der Geistertanz’ (‘Ghost dance’) is as macabre as Mary Shelley with no hint of Saint-Saëns humour. But tenor and pianist are accomplished in these adult-audiences-only numbers.

‘Ganymede’ is the massive satellite of Jupiter, the Solar System’s biggest moon, and in Greek mythology the young male god, perfectly, but not necessarily muscularly, formed for homosexual worship. The last formation being dominant in Hellenic times, after the fall of Athens. It is this last aspect which Goethe (no less) emphasises in his poem. There is almost a lullaby feeling in the Johnson/Tritschler presentation.

Of the four Goethe lieder on the programme my own preference goes for his most popular one, which closed the concert ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’ (‘Greetings and Addio!’). The Eternal Sage brings to life an evening which is ‘cradling’ the earth, night clinging to the hills, winds gently beating their wings and darkness with its hundred jet black eyes. But then the face of the beloved appears, and all is transformed. How could Schubert resist such a challenge? Or Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson not round off their memorable recital with such triumph.

Not quite the end of the recital. On return to the stage, Robin Tritschler announced in his wonderfully warm tenor voice that they had begun with an unfinished lied and would end with another – ‘Über allen Zauber Liebe’ (‘Love above all magic’). The title says it all.

Andrew McGregor was the perfect presenter throughout, with exactly the right amount of information at the right moment for BBC Radio 3 listeners and viewers online.

Jack Buckley

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