Exceptional Wigmore Hall recital from Günther Groissböck who is a rare visitor to these shores

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Günther Groissböck (bass) and Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.1.2022. (KMcD)

Günther Groissböck © Dominik Stixenberger

SchumannBlondels Lied, Op.53 No. 1; Die feindlichen Brüder, Op.49 No.2; Belsazar, Op.57; Die beiden Grenadiere, Op.49 No.1
Rott – Der Sänger: Geistergruss; Wandrers Nachtlied
Bruckner – Im April; Herbstkummer; Mein Herz und deine Stimme
Wolf – Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo
MussorgskySongs and Dances of Death
MahlerRevelge; Der Schildwache Nachtlied; Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz; Der Tamboursg’sell; Urlicht (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

It is something of a mystery why the great Austrian bass, Günther Groissböck, has been seen so rarely on these shores. He is a major name in opera houses and concert halls on the continent and in the United States, yet this was his debut at the Wigmore Hall. In addition, he has only been engaged twice at The Royal Opera, as Fasolt (Das Rheingold), and Banquo (Macbeth), and given he has received rave reviews for his performances as Gurnemanz (Parsifal), King Marke (Tristan und Isolde) and Baron Ochs (Der Rosenkavalier), it is unfathomable why he has not been invited to sing any of these roles at Covent Garden.

I count myself fortunate to have seen his Gurnemanz three times, (Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin), and few singers these days can match the eloquence and musicality he brings to the part. So the prospect of hearing him perform a programme of German lieder and Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death was one to be relished, and he certainly lived up to, and in many ways exceeded, expectations. He could very easily have played safe in his choice of repertoire, but instead chose an eclectic selection of songs for the first half of this challenging, yet glorious recital – many of which could be classed as rarities.

Schumann’s Blondels Lied (Blondel’s Song) tells a chivalric tale of heroic deeds, and suited Groissböck’s natural penchant for striking storytelling to perfection. There was an innate warmth to his tone throughout, supported by a faultless technique and, it goes without saying, scrupulous attention to the German text. Each verse ends with the line ‘Suche treu, so findest du’ (‘Seek in faith and you shall find’), yet each sounded different, testament to the way Groissböck was able to deploy an array of vocal colours, subtly inflecting the line each time it appeared.

In Die feindlichen Brüder (The warring brothers), he unleashed a wall of sound, at one with the declamatory nature of the song – ‘Helle Schwerter klirren wild’ (‘Bright swords fiercely clash’) – painting vivid pictures of two brothers in battle. Then in Belsazar (Belshazzar), he brought to life the depravation at the heart of Belshazzar’s court with an exceptionally dramatic account of the King’s last hours, leading to the appearance of the hand which wrote the prophecy on the wall. ‘Jehova! Dir künd ich auf ewig Hohn, – Ich bin der König von Babylon!’ (‘Jehovah! I offer you eternal scorn – I am the King of Babylon’), shook the Wigmore Hall to its foundations, as Groissböck threw restraint to the wall. A stentorian account of Die beiden Grenadiere (The two grenadiers) concluded the set of Schumann songs – a judicious selection which provided the perfect showcase for Groissböck’s ability to bring characters to life solely through the extraordinary way he can act with his voice.

The three Hans Rott songs which followed allowed Groissböck to show his ample range. Although a bass, the high lying exclamatory ‘Lasst mir herein den Alten’ (‘Let the old man enter’) rang out thrillingly in Der Sänger (The Singer), whilst Bruckner’s Im April (In April) was infused with a sense of loss and melancholy and sung with an aching beauty that pervaded Herbstkummer (Autumn sorrow) as well. Groissböck concluded the first half of the recital with a superbly-poised account of Wolf’s Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo – impassioned in Wohl denk’ ich oft (I often recall), world-weary, each note dripping with resignation, in Alles endet, was entstehet (All must end that has beginning), and perfectly capturing the sense of sehnsucht or longing in Fühlt meine Seele (Does my soul feel).

The only item not in the native tongue of the Austrian was Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, which opened the second half. Equally at home in Russian, Groissböck relished every word and phrase of these bleak, challenging yet emotionally-charged songs. The first, Lullaby, allowed him to show what his richly-coloured lower range was capable of, while Serenade once again showed what an animated storyteller he is, capping this song with a terrifying cry of ‘Slushai! Molchi! Ty moya’ (‘Be silent! You are mine!’). The fourth and final song, The Field Marshal, found him at his most nuanced, whilst still encapsulating the drama at the heart of the work.

The military theme continued through a selection of five songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Beginning with Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Night Song), Groissböck took us on a perilous journey through the battlefield, gloriously phrased, with plenty of light and shade, complete with the one of most amazingly controlled diminuendos on the phrase ‘Bin ich gestellt’ (‘I am ordered’) anybody could have ever heard. There was plenty of swagger in Revelge (Reveille), while the final item on the programme, Ulricht (Primal Light), was heart-stopping in its hushed intensity.

This was musicmaking on an exalted level, and throughout Malcolm Martineau was a sensitive, attentive accompanist. Hard to believe, but these two formidable artists were performing together for the first time – yet the synergy was palpable. Groissböck is a singer at the peak of his interpretative powers, who is blessed with one of the most luxurious bass voices of the day, ably supported by a rock-solid technique. Let us hope he becomes a far more regular visitor to these shores – based on this exceptional recital alone, he has more than earned an invitation to return.

Keith McDonnell

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