Friday, 2 June 2017

Histoire naturelles: Christopher Maltman, Malcolm Martineau and their menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Malcolm Martineau & Christopher Maltman (Malcom Martineau und Christopher Maltman (© Wolfgang Runkel www.wolfgang-runkel.de)
Malcolm Martineau, Christopher Maltman (©Wolfgang Runkel)
Poulenc, Schumann, Ravel, Reger, Chabrier, Wolf, Flanders & Swann; Christopher Maltman, Malcolm Martineau; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 31 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A wonderful musical menagerie from two consummate story-tellers

Ravel's Histoires naturelles formed the centre-piece of baritone Christopher Maltman and pianist Malcolm Martineau's animal-themed recital at Wigmore Hall on 31 May 2017. So, amongst the eleven mammals, three fish, five insects, nine birds and one invertebrate, we had Poulenc's Le bestiare, ballads by Schumann, Ravel's Histoires naturelles, songs by Reger, Chabrier and Wolf, and of course songs by Flanders and Swann.

We opened with Francis Poulenc's 1909 Apollinaire setting Le bestiare. Six short, sometimes surreal, texts to which Malcolm Martineau brought a vibrant piano accompaniment to complement the delightfully pompous, dead-pan delivery from Christopher Maltman. Each gave a great sense of narrative and individual songs were full of lovely details, the insouciant grass-hope with a magical use of high registers, the delightfully portentous crayfish and the lovely calm textures of the carp.

Robert Schumann's 1940 ballad, Die Löwenbraut (The Lion's bride) sets a gory text by Adalbert von Chamiso (best known for his text for Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben). Maltman showed himself a master story-teller, bringing brilliant variety and a sense of colour to the essentially strophic song, so the performance really held our attention. The same was true of Die Handschuh (The glove), Schumann's 1850 setting of Schiller's ballad. Here both artist showed great control of colour, emotion and narrative, and there was a terrific denouement.

Maurice Ravel's 1906 cycle Histoires naturelles sets Renard's prose-poetry in a very naturalistic fashion. The vocal line fluidly follows the text, with a very strongly structured piano accompaniment underneath. Maltman brought a nicely fluid flow to his French, making the vocal line seem expressively obvious. The peacock's cries of 'Leon' were superb, with a lovely dead-pan aside afterwards. The cricket was quiet an intimate with Maltman really telling story both musically and visually, supported by Martineau's magical piano. The piano also provided the effortless gliding of the swan, over which Maltman wove a characterful narrative. The kingfisher was sheer magic, and the final song, the guinea-fowl, provided a lively narrative full of control over detail.

After the interval were six of Max Reger's Schichte Weisen (Simple ditties) full of mice, bees, hedgehogs, chicks and a scary fly. Charmingly characterful pieces with just hints of Reger's familiar late Romanticism, rendered with great wit by the performers.

Emmanuel Chabrier's Six Melodies from 1890 contains three animal songs, quite light in feel yet full of charm and character whilst being deceptively complex. Despite the sophistications the plump turkey cocks were great fun, the little ducks were charming, and the cicadas combined a wonderfully imaginative piano accompaniment with a lively narrative.

Hugo Wolf's Stochenbotschaft (Stork tidings) of 1888 was full of vividly strong feelings, darker and complex even though there was a happy ending. Der Schwalben Heimkehr (The swallows' homecoming) of 1877 was simpler and lyrically beautiful. Der Knabe und das Immlein (The boy and the bee) was a slightly curious dialogue, with Maltman nicely contrasting the differences between the young man's romantic aspirations and the bee's pointing out that his beloved was still a child. Der Rattenfanger (The rat-catcher) of 1888 setting Goethe's celebrated poem was a bravura tour de force.

Finally we had three Flanders and Swann songs, The Armadillo, The Warthog and The Gnu with both performers bringing out the sophistication of the songs, whilst not neglecting the fun element too. And Maltman's diction was superb so we certainly did not miss the printed texts (omitted from the programme book for copyright reasons). Of course we had an encore, The Hippopotamus Song with the chorus ('Mud, glorious mud') sung first by Maltman, then Maltman and Martineau and then by the whole audience.

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