Tuesday 15 January 2019

Early and late - Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall

Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Schumann's Spring and Fall; Robin Tritschler, Graham Johnson; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 January 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★½)
A mix of early and late Schumann songs in this fine exploration

For the second of his seasonal programmes at the Wigmore Hall, tenor Robin Tritschler was joined by pianist Graham Johnson for an all-Schumann programme, Schumann's Spring and Fall, which mixed songs from Schumann's Liederjahr of 1840, including the Eichendorff Liederkreis with songs from his late-period (1849/50).

The title might lead us expect the subjects of Spring and Autumn as being central to the programme, and Tritschler and Johnson started off with Frühlingsfahrt, Op.45, no.2 which seemed to encapsulate these themes, the story of two brothers which starts of in brisk optimistic mode, but moves into quieter, more thoughtful territory with a significant postlude. And they followed this with Schumann's Liederkreis Op.39, a lyrical sequence of Eichendorff settings which mirror Schumann's states of mind, ecstatic, anxious, fearful, lyrical, luminous during that crucial year of 1840 when he and Clara struggled with her father to allow their marriage.

Tritschler and Johnson made the Liederkreis very much a sequence of lyric scenes, each a story and a mood in itself, with Johnson's richly sophisticated and darkly characterful piano complimenting the Tritschler's masterly story-telling. Each song had its own character, its own story, by turns mesmerising, engaging, seductive or full of suppressed excitement. This is a world where night and darkness always threaten, such as the sinister Lorelie rendered brilliantly seductive in 'Waldesgesprach' or the magical melancholy of 'Zwielicht' (Twilight). And at the centre was 'Mondnacht' (Moonlit night) in a quietly intense yet limpidly sustained performance.

The first half concluded with a quartet of late songs, and here we began to understand that there was another theme to the concert, the springtime and autumn of Schumann's song career, with Tritschler and Johnson giving us a group of Schumann's late songs (dating from 1849/50) in contrast to the songs from the Liederjahr of 1840. The late Schumann songs have often been overlooked, the spectre of his illness hangs over them, but so does his great love of J.S. Bach and these later songs require listening with a different ear.

Flutenreicher Ebro, Op.138, No.5 was quite a surprise, despite the title 'Surging River Ebro' the song was joyfully descriptive with a steadily flowing piano part conveying the song along. Frühlingsbotschaft Op.79 No.3 (Spring Tidings) kept the lively mood, whilst Auftrage Op.77 No.5 (Messages) wrapped the urgency of its message in a postlude where the mood evaporated, and finally the beautifully thoughtful Der Abendstern Op.79 No. 1(The evening star).

For the second half, Tritschler and Johnson ranged widely between early and late, including selections from Myrthen, Op.25 (which was Schumann's wedding gift to Clara) and the Minnespiel Op.101 from 1849. Meine Töne still und heiter from this latter, included another feature of late Schumann, complex, textured (and sometimes Bach-inspired) piano writing which here complemented Tritschler's engaging account of the lover's serenade. Also late, the Rückert setting, Die Blume der Ergebung, Op.83 No.2 was engagingly lyrical yet also with a richly textured accompaniment.

The earlier Loreley Op.53 No.2 (from 1840) was short and strikingly intense, contrasting with a limpid account of Du bist wie eine Blume from Myrthen. More Heine with Abends am Strand, Op.45 No.3 (Evening by the sea) started of in Bachian mode but then Schumann goes wandering through the fisher-man's sea tales, before returning home. We continued with Heine's Der arme Peter (also from 1840) which sets three poems about Poor Peter, the first an engagingly lively wedding at which Peter is an unwilling spectator leaving the music to gradually unwind into the second, sharply character and darkly dramatic account of his unhappy mood having lost his love, then the final spare, dark march to the grave.

Der Sennen Abschied Op.79 No.22 (The herdsman's farewell) was another late song, here Schumann incorporates the Ronde de vaches into the piano complementing the melancholy leaving from the meadows at the end of the season.

We returned to Myrthen for the pair of Venetianisches Lied, both setting Thomas Moore, neither conventionally Venetian, both beautifully characterful.

Finally a group of late songs, starting with Mein schöner Stern! (My lovely star) from the Minnespiel, with chromatic harmony creating a lyrically intense song to a lovely star, yet there was something darker hovering in the background. Nachtlied Op.96 No. 1 had a hymn-like accompaniment for this quietly concentrated night piece which grew bleaker towards the end. Der Einsiedler Op.83 No.3 (The hermit) was a striking and rather metaphysical piece, and we finished with the stunning Requiem Op.90 No.7 which Schumann appended to his Lenau settings Op.90 in tribute to the poet's recent death. Graham Johnson wover a wonderfully complex web of piano around a vocal line which started of beautifully consoling and became deeply felt and powerful.

This was a fine exploration of Schumann's songs, giving us a chance to hear both well-known and lesser known pieces in a highly intelligent and always engrossing performance. We were treated to an encore, 'Sängers Trost' from the Kerner Lieder.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio performed in the Kölner Philharmonie (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects - interview
  • Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Handel at Cannons: Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 from Adrian Butterfield, London Handel Orchestra and soloists (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seeing out the old year and seeing in the new: Tony Cooper at the Tiroler Festspiele, Erl (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
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