Friday 17 June 2016

Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson in Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Schubert; Robin Tritschler, Graham Johnson; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 15 2016
Star rating: 5.0

A pair of master storytellers giving us three Schubert ballads, as well as songs from his wunderjahr of 1815

The Wigmore Hall's Schubert: The Complete Songs continues apace and on Wednesday 15 June 2016, tenor Robin Tritschler and pianist Graham Johnson gave a programme which explored a number of themes within Schubert's work. First of all there was the year 1815, with all the songs in the first half coming from this wunderjahr when the eighteen-year-old Schubert composed 150 songs. There were also songs grouped by poet, so that we had a Goethe group, a Klopstock group and a Hölty group, and the recital finished with a group of songs on the theme of parents and children. Another, fascinating, thread running through the whole recital was that of large scale ballads, so that we were treated to three, Goethe's Der Sänger, a setting of a German translation of Ossian's Cronnan and Schiller's Der Alpenjäger.

Schubert's ballads are something of a challenge for performers, with lots of words and often strophic or nearly strophic in structure. Robin Tritschler is however a master story-teller in the recital room, and here partnered by Graham Johnson the two really made the three ballads into one of the highlights of the evening. Tritschler has a wonderfully compelling manner which draws you into the narrative, and both he and Johnson used the music to its full extent. This was story-telling which drew on words and music.

Der Sänger began with Graham Johnson explaining that Schubert had marked the piano prelude to be played as if from a distance, as if it was the minstrel's melody heard from the outside of the town. Though Goethe's verse was strophic, Schubert's treatment was not as he divided the piece almost into aria and recitative, with Tritschler contrasting the vivid recitative with honeyed tones for the minstrel's arias, and even the piano interludes took the plot forward.

As a contrast we heard further Goethe settings, all dating from 1815. Am Flusse was full of dramatic melancholy, with Tritschler colouring this with lovely tone, whilst Heidenröslein brought us to perhaps the best known song of the evening. Here it was done lightly, yet vividly, bringing out the drama in the lyric verses. The final Goethe setting was Schäfer's Klagelied, which Johnson and Tritschler made intimate and rather confiding, contrasting moments of beauty and moments of drama, culminating an ending which was heartbreaking.

Still in 1815 we heard a group of settings of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and what was notable, though, was how all of the Klopstock poems seemed to partake of the same elegiac sense of poetic melancholy. We started with settings of three poems he wrote for his beloved Margarete.  Der Rosenband had an interesting freedom to the way Schubert treated Klopstock's metre, making a quite simple song rather touching/ Gurch der Geliebten was again quite simple, yet deeply felt, whilst An Sie was quite serious and rather intent, despite the vigour of the melodic material.

Die Sommernacht started with a pensive recitative, complemented by a real feeling of narrative in the piano, and only with the 'fragrance and coolness' of the last verse did we reach something lyric, sung with lovely tone by Tritschler; a moment of beauty which Schubert snatches away far too soon. Die frühen Gräber was another song of intent melancholy, with Schubert having a rather free sense of Klopstock's metre.

The first half ended with Cronnan, a setting of Baron Edmund von Harold's translation of a poem attributed to the Gaelic bard Ossian (in fact written by James MacPherson). It tells the story of the hero Shilric, who returns to his village the only survivor of a battle to encounter the ghost of his beloved, Vinvela, who has died of grief. Most of the poem is in Shilric's vigorous voice, but we hear Vinvela too and here Schubert creates something magical. Johnson's eerie piano timbres complemented Tritschler's haunting tone here. Overall the performance was spellbind, with both singer and pianist conjuring a wide variety of magical tones to bring out the narrative in Schubert's poem.

After the interval we moved to 1816 with a group of songs setting poems by Ludwig Heinrich Christoph Hölty. Hölty's interests were less melancholy than those of Klopstock, with poems about love and the natural world. Schubert seems to have responded with songs of great lyric beauty. In Minnelied, Robin Tritschler complemented the lyric beauty of the song with a gorgeous sense of line. Die frühe Liebe was all vivid story-telling, with delightful charm, whilst in Blumenlied Tritschler gave us a strong sense of the words. The final Hölty song, Erntelied was all carefree vigour.

Having a group of songs about Parents and Children meant that the performers could wander quite freely amongst Schubert's output. What was noticeable was that, though the poems rarely avoided sentimentality Schubert's settings were remarkably clear eyed. Freude der Kinderjahre (a setting of Friedrich von Köpken from 1816) was very, very strophic but enlivened by Tritschler and Johnson's attention to expressive detail in each verse.  Der Knabe in der Wiege 'Wiegendlied' (a setting of Anton Ottenwalt from 1817) had a sort of rocking motion in the lower piano, yet one which suggested unevenness and perhaps unease. Against this the setting was strophic, with different colours enlivening the text. The final ballad of the evening was Friedrich Schiller's Der Alpenjäger from 1817. In it a mother fails to stop her son going hunting on the mountain, but he is stopped mid-hunt by the spirit of the mountain. It is a striking narrative, with Schubert's music responding to the changes of tempo and location in the story. Both Tritschler and Johnson brought out the very different tones of the various voices, with the remarkable conclusion when the spirit appears.

Albert Stadler's Namenstagslied was set by Schubert in 1820, and the song starts with a rather outrageous gesture in the piano but nevertheless it develops into a simple lyric song. Der Vater mit dem Kind (a setting of Eduard von Bauernfeld of 1827) was another song with uneven rocking in the piano, complementing Tritschler's gentle account of the song which ultimately became rather confiding. The final song was Vor meiner Wiege, a setting of Karl Gottfried von Leitner of 1827. This was a rather down-beat ending for the recital as Schubert produced a clear eyed setting of a rather sentimental subject, yet when the singer contemplates his own mortality it suddenly flowers into intense passion.

Robin Tritschler has an intensely beautiful voice, but as a performer his is never one to rest on his laurels and here in partnership with Graham Johnson the two really mined Schubert's songs for their deep meaning. Yes we had beautiful tone, pellucid piano playing, vivid character, wonderful diction and intense drama, but all were used towards helping reveal the songs themselves. It helps that Tritschler seems a natural story-teller on stage, and here he was complemented by a similar sense from Johnson's piano playing.

We we treated to a single encore, Der Knabe, a charmingly characterful song about a boy wanting to be a bird.

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