Meeting the Schubert duo at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: James Newby (baritone) and Simon Lepper (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.2.2022. (JPr)

James Newby (baritone) (c) Robert Piwko


Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin D795

No one will disagree with Schubert’s lieder being understood as a duo. Interestingly, that raises more questions than answers. Herewith some possible ‘answers’.

Franz Schubert led a life full of extremely disturbing questions, at least one of them carrying a death threat. Carry on regardless? That was not the maestro’s solution. Scribbling Hark, hark, the lark (aka Ständchen) on the back of a menu card (Vienna is full of coffee bars even today) was not a solution either. But maybe there was something to explore there?

Mercifully, exploring was something which Franz turned out to do rather well. And with good manners: an over to you approach to his performers and audiences. Like Mozart, he knew he had an audience. And how to hold the attention of that audience. As well as how to challenge them.

Plain sailing? Not exactly. Singers and pianists too often get in the way of the music. Can you hear me mum? Mum and I hear you only too well. But (in extreme cases of this potential malice) Schubert can sometimes get lost in the transfer.

James Newby is a graduate baritone of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and DanceGavin Henderson’s moving of Trinity College of Music in 2001, when he was Principal – at that time, behind Selfridges of Oxford Street – to the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, turned out to be a stroke of genius. Music and dance belong together: and Newby’s performance tonight, never lets us forget it.

Nor does he forget that he is a part of a duo. But here some critical lights begin flashing. What an excellent storyteller Newby is! He gives it his whole. But herein flashes the red light.

He (possibly unwittingly) finds himself in the swampy ground of camp. I am reminded of the celebrated occasion when Dustin Hoffman confessed to Laurence Olivier that having prepared himself with a long run ahead of his next scene in a film, he then discovered the run had physically exhausted him. Ever tried being an actor? asked Olivier with a smile.

Put that another way: intensity of delivery spells certain failure for a would-be actor. Relax somewhat and let the Schubert phrase be your guide.

The good news is that Newby was giving us some of this. When he allowed himself to be prompted by the music’s shapes, he was more convincing. Charles Kennedy Scott (of old Trinity) used to have a series of exercises for his students to increase the power of a phrase through a withholding of it. That is what some teachers would call breath control. And some students call magic. Both are right. Try it, James.

Of course, it is a huge help that the supporter of all supporters, Simon Lepper, is seated at the Steinway (sorry about the downgrade from the recent Fazioli you played, Simon). Whether it is the mysterious, rippling brook which makes many appearances such as the penultimate Der Müller und der Bach, where the ripples have become a tad (appropriately) weary, through obligatory(?) repetition. We know you dear brook, say the Lepper fingers. The Dalai Lama would hear a life against death treatment of these passages. Nor would His Holiness be alone. Friendly compulsion is also woven into the Lepper delivery. Inevitability. No other way.

The fear/hope dialogue is a leitmotif running right through the Schubert catalogue. It is there enchantingly in the Arpeggione Sonata where its theme comes and goes without so much as a by your leave. A ‘new’ tune flirting unashamedly with an old formula. Always poised to give. Wagner starts to sound like a heavy-handed bore.

Even more gently nuanced is when Schubert shockingly leaps to an unrelated motif from a related one. Halt! (No.3) in German is much more aggressive than Stop! in English. As the editor of Private Eye would have said, Could they by any chance be related? Tragedy pausing as comedy. The two are interrelated.

Lieder had its origins in the nineteenth century, as a much posher form of Music Hall. But while the Music Hall artists had to fight to get a hearing, performing in boozy, smoky halls for mostly working class, lewd men, while the singers of lieder were men and women, educated to introduce the poets of the day set to music for those men and women who sought a step up the social ladder.

I remain grateful to the Music Hall for showing me I was a musician. Grandpa took me to Blackpool central pier as a get-better treat, after I had fallen down some stairs and had a leg in plaster. Randolph Sutton starred as one of a group of variety artists in a show called Thanks for the Memory in the late 1940s. Returning home, I discovered I could sing, and play on the piano the powerful performances I had heard. Ella Shields had blown white powder all over us as she started her signature number, Burlington Bertie from Bow. We were seated on the front row.

Of course, Schubert requires a different approach to Burlington Bertie. Even in number 4 – Danksagung an den Bach (Thanksgiving to the brook) – the nuances have to be invoked with the invocation not being obvious. So simple. So difficult. The very soul of Schubert.

Number 11, Mein! (Mine!), starts with ‘Brooklet cease your murmuring!’ and calls for passion, but a passion which has accidently got out of control. A nuance which is uncomfortably close to Music Hall in the Newby telling.

To understand better the performance in review I listened again to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Two things are wrong with his delivery. Too often he goes into falsetto and frequently his lower notes are spoken, rather than sung. Sing gentlemen sing! You otherwise lose Schubert’s lyricism. And that is a prime quality for me. Fischer-Dieskau may be a role model for James Newby. But for me he remains a terrible mistake. (We live in a time when there is a rich choice of countertenors with all the musicianship to go with that difficult art. Please applaud them and leave them to it.)

I am extremely opposed to pianists stabbing the keys of their instrument. But Simon Lepper did just that for number 14, Der Jäger (The Hunter). And what fun that was! There was, of course, some mystique in this stabbing.

Jack Buckley

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