Friday 8 January 2016

Consummate storytelling - Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson in Schubert

Christopher Maltman - © Pia Clodi
Christopher Maltman - © Pia Clodi
Schubert songs; Christopher Maltman, Graham Johnson; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Jan 6 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Christopher Maltman demonstrated his amazing expressive range in the latest instalment of the Wigmore Hall's Schubert: The Complete Songs

The latest in the Wigmore Hall's series 'Schubert: The Complete Songs' on 6 January 2016 featured teenage settings of Goethe, Hölty, Schiller and Mayrhofer, plus tales 'From the battlefield' written when Schubert was in his twenties, sung by baritone Christopher Maltman accompanied by Graham Johnson. Christopher Maltman demonstrated his huge vocal and expressive range, stamina and incredible memory in front of mesmerised audience.

Maltman made the Wigmore feel like a small Viennese salon but his consummate storytelling took us to many places, emotionally and geographically. The first song, 'Szene aus Faust', is the next chapter after 'Gretchen am Spinnrade': the Böser Geist (Evil Spirit – presumably Mephistopheles as well as Gretchen's conscience) taunts the petrified Gretchen, as the deadpan Chorus sings the 'Dies irae' to warn that the day of judgement is all that awaits. Originally conceived as an operatic scena for several voices and orchestra, Maltman and Johnson played all the roles between them. And we were hooked, like a group of children sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Next came five songs to poems by Hölty. The first, 'An den Mond' (To the moon) is often done wistfully, but not here. This was a song about a dead lover, not a dead love. 'An die Nachtigall' (To the nightingale) was darker than the more well-known Brahms setting; her death came in 'Auf der Tod einer Nachtigall' and there was an anger in Maltman's voice at being robbed. 'Die Nonne' was another tale of love out of reach. In this story the ardent knight gets what he wants and seduces the nun, but soon gets bored. However, he doesn't bargain for the nun's Italian passion: she hires a band of murderers, rips the errant lover's heart out, throws it around and tramples on it. A marvellous story, brilliantly acted by Maltman, starting as an innocent folk tale and ending with the ghostly nun, like Lady Macbeth, stamping on the knight's heart as the clock strikes midnight.

The final song of the first half, 'Die Bürgschaft' (The bond) was a huge epic lasting almost 20 minutes. A one-man opera, plus orchestra evoking the rains, the floods, the fights and the wedding. Maltman sang the whole thing from memory and played all the characters so vividly we felt we were in the middle of it all. Schiller's ballad tells of Möros, condemned to death for trying to kill the tyrant Dionysus. Granted three days' grace to go and marry his sister, the tyrant keeps his friend as a surety, to be put to death if the hero doesn't make it back in time. Many obstacles are encountered and surmounted as the clock is ticking, but Möros and the friend agree to die together. So touched is the tyrant by this show of solidarity that he spares them both and asks to be the third member of their fellowship. We were on the edge of our seats.

The second half of the recital began with six songs set to poems by Schubert's unhinged friend Mayrhofer. They had a common theme of longing for otherness, most concretely in 'Rückweg' (The return), as the narrator approaches Vienna and leaves behind all that is beautiful in life: mountains, forests and the sound of cowbells.

The final set was songs 'From the battlefield' by poets whose names (apart from Walter Scott, who was translated anyway) are only known because of their association with Schubert. These were tales of chivalry and gung-ho men involved in pointless wars, inspired, as Graham Johnson told us, by contemporary soldiers sweltering under the Tunisian sun and longing for the Alps. Maltman took us with him in his nostalgia, fear, and boozy oblivion with Wallenstein's lancer drinking wine out of his helmet.

The programme was for the hard-core Schubertians – there were few songs that do the rounds (though 'Gruppe aus Tartarus' was the encore) – but as an illustration of the depth and breadth of Schubert's – and Maltman's – storytelling, nobody could have failed to be totally gripped throughout.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Szene aus Goethes 'Faust' D126; An den Mond D193; An die Nachtigall D196; An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte D197; Auf den Tod einer Nachtigall D201; Die Nonne D208; Die Bürgschaft D246. Liane D298; Fragment aus dem Aeschylus D450; Liedesend D473; Rückweg D476; Alte Liebe rostet nie D477; Zum Punsche D492 From The Battlefield; An die Leier D737; Normans Gesang D846; Das Heimweh D851; Romanze des Richard Löwenherz D907; Der Wallensteiner Lanzknecht beim Trunk D931.

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