photo credit Garreth Wong
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 1 2015
Intensely beautiful performances, and imaginative programming from this young tenor
Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson's recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 1 February 2015, was in two contrasting halves. In the first half, they performed Robert Schumann's Kerner Lieder, Op 35 and in the second half a group of songs setting Shakespearean texts. Billed as Songs for the (Bard's) Shows the group was organised by play and presented a wide selection of composers Richard Leveridge, RVW, EJ Moeran, Benjamin Dale, Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, Ivor Gurney, Michael Tippett, Hanns Eisler, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Schumann's Kerner Lieder were written in 1840, the Liederjahr in which he wrote 140 songs in the space of a year, triggered by his marriage to Clara. Justinus Kerner was a doctor and poet whose work Schumann had admired, and set, whilst a student in Heidelberg. In 1840 Schumann chose to set 12 poems from a collection of Kerner's from 1834, one which both he and Clara admired. Schumann's 12 Lieder op 35 nach Gedichten von Justinus Kerner (note Gedichte - poems, rather than Lieder - songs) are not one of Schumann's best known cycles and remain somewhat under appreciated. The songs do not form a conventional cycle at all, Schumann seems to have simply chosen poems that moved him. The poems Schumann chose deal mainly with nature and the way the outer display of nature reflects the various inner turmoils of man. They are certainly not the sort of uncomplicated songs you might expect from a man recently married to his beloved after a long wait. And the strength of Tritschler and Johnson's performance was the way they created a sense of emotional narrative underlying the whole cycle.
Lust der Sturmnacht (Joy in a stormy night) plunged straight in with rainstorms gusting and raging outside, in performance which was vibrantly impulsive, Tritschler started with virile tone, before giving way to lyric beauty. Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'! (Die, love and joy!) is a rather odd song about a young girl going to be a nun, crying die, love and joy. Tritschler and Johnson gave the narrative a calmness and inner stillness, it was both thoughtful and powerful. The fact that the last verse suggested that the narrator was the girl's lover made it all the more poignant.
Wanderlied (Song of travel) was more of a simpler volkslied, which Tritschler sang in a virile, vibrant manner. But Erstes Grun (First Green) was back to the sense of melancholy as no green shoots seem to be able to calm this young man. Sehnsucht nach der Walgegend (Longing for woodland) and this sense of underlying melancholy continued through this hauntingly atmospheric song.
Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes (To the wine glass of a departed friend) both laments the death of one of Schumann's friends and expresses his love of German wine. Tritschler started out robustly but the final verse was notable for the still beauty of the performance.
Wanderung (Wandering) was more exuberant, with carefree joy and hunting calls in the piano. Stille Liebe (Silent Love) was contained, controlled and intense, and you were aware of the way Johnson was fully in sympathy with Tritschler's intense, considered and highly personal approach.
Frage (Question) was a quiet but rather disturbing, questioning song. Stille Tranen (Silent tears), for me the best known song of the cycle, which Tritschler built from delicate intensity to full blown romance, with some profoundly beautiful moments.
Wer machte dich so krank? (Who made you so ill?) is a song which achieves its means by very simple ends. An astonishingly bleak song in which the poet states that nature heals, but the work of men wounds unto death. Alte Laute (Sounds from the Past) which Tritschler and Johnson performed as almost otherworldly, the end of a powerful journey.
Throughout Tritschler and Johnson both impressed for their sense of control and atmosphere in the songs. Tritschler has a voice of great lyric beauty, with a capability to produce mesmerisingly beautiful float high notes; once heard, never forgotten. He used this to great sense of character, and my overriding experience of this performance was the way the artists turned Schumann's apparently disparate group of songs into one young man's intense and powerfully concentrated interior journey.
We had a complete change of mood for the second half, with its selection of songs to Shakespearean texts. Nearly all the songs were 20th century, and nearly all set Shakespearean lyrics though many were not intended for the stage. RVW's Orpheus with his lute (1925), from Henry VIII, was touchingly appealing, though I would not necessarily have identified it as by RVW. Richard Leveridge's setting of Who is Sylvia (1727) from Two Gentlemen of Verona is not the best known. Leveridge worked in the London theatres, and the song had great charm, and Tritschler sang the ornamented vocal line very stylishly.
For Jog on, jog on the footpath way from A Winter's Tale Tritschler sang the anonymous 17th century song which Shakespeare probably had in mind when writing the lyrics. Still in A Winter's Tale, EJ Moeran's The sweet o'the year (1931) was surprisingly similar in terms of vocal line, but Moeran's piano part was rich and strange and the results, as the vocal line went wandering, were not a little bravura.
A surprise was Hanns Eisler's setting of Horatio's Monolog (1956) from Hamlet. Not a song, but a speech which was set in a measured, yet lyric manner with a strong sense of chromatic harmony and an underlying melancholy. Another Hamlet, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's The clown in the churchyard (1924) setting one of the grave-diggers songs. Here the complex and characterful piano part complemented a vocal line which seemed to have a popular vein running through it. The result was distinctive and very striking.
From Love's Labours Lost came Gerald Finzi's Songs of Hiems and Ver (1946) in which Finzi used introductory and concluding melodrama to surround a pair of contrasting songs (the cuckoo in spring and the owl in winter). Spring was a perky delight, with a distinctive Finzi tinge and a hint of blues in the piano, whilst Winter was similar in character but very much edgier.
Another Castelnuovo-Tedesco song, Calban (1921-25) setting No more dams I'll make for fish from Act 2 scene 2 of The Tempest. A short but vividly memorable song. Then,still in The Tempest, Michael Tippett's Song for Ariel (1962). Come unto these yellow sands had a piano part of glittering beauty, whilst the lyricism of Tritschler's voice combined with a vivid sense of Ariel's character. Full Fathom Five was dark and hushed, whilst the vocal line in Where the bee sucks seemed to pay homage to Tippett's work on Purcell. Here Tritschler sang with ease and style.
Next a group of three songs from As You Like It. In Ivor Gurney's Under the greenwood tree (1912), the piano hinted at songs of an earlier era whilst Tritschler brought great insouciance to the vocal line. Blow, blow thou winter wind was set by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in 1937. More conventional than the Gurney, it was appealing when performed so finely. Roger Quilter's It was a lover and his lass (1921) had great lyric charm and a nice slyness.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco's The Fool (1926) set a sequence of short songs for the Fool from King Lear which the composer wove into a continuous narrative, as the Fool observes and comments on the King's decline. The vocal settings where quite traditional and ballad-like in style, but between them Castelnuovo-Tedesco gave us some complex piano interludes. Each song was different, but the same motifs were woven into the piano. Overall I found the cycle slightly curious, but intriguing.
Three songs from Twelfth Night, with Benjamin Dale's O Mistress Mine (1919), Gerald Finzi's Come away, come away, death (1918) and Korngold's Adieu, Good Man Devil (1937). Dale's song had great charm and was full of neo-18th century hints in the writing, whilst Finzi's is one of the most profoundly beautiful in the repertoire. Tritschler, singing with hushed tone, was very moving here. Korngold's setting was short and surprising, rather a patter song.
Such a striking and thoughtful programme, beautifully and sympathetically performed by Tritschler and Johnson was deservedly warmly applauded. We were treated to two encores. The first linked the two halves of the programme, Schumann's first song from 1840, his setting of the Clown's song from Twelfth Night, The rain it raineth every day. And then Tritschler explained that he had had fun putting the programme together and that if he had included every song he wanted, we would have been there since 3pm, but there was one more that he had to include. This was John Dankworth's The Complete Works, a dazzling patter number listing all the plays and more, which Tritschler sang with great wit.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Clarity and rhythmic sublety: Granados Danzas Espanolas - CD review
- Spectacular but unfocussed: Tales of Hoffmann, HD broadcast from the Met - opera review
- Macbeth by design: EPOC at Central St Martin's - opera review
- Review of the reviews:Un Ballo in Maschera - opera review
- Bravura poetry: Nicholas McCarthy at Rhinegold Live - concert review
- Poised intelligence: Ralf Taal in Chopin - CD review
- Imaginative new choral music: A Multitude of Voices
- The Tempest restored: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - concert review
- Aspects of Enlightenment in Berlin: Mahan Esfahani & Norman Lebrecht - concert review
- Superb, but where's the meat? Jonas Kaufmann as Andrea Chenier - opera review
- Soviet Russia, new music, Bolivia and more: An encounter with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich - interview