Saturday, 1 November 2014

Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall - Liszt Strauss revelations

Any Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau performance is superb, but this Wigmore Hall recital surprised, too.  Boesch's Schubert is wonderful, but this time, it was his Liszt and Strauss songs that stood out. This year at the Wigmore Hall, we've heard a lot of Liszt and a lot of Richard Strauss everywhere, establishing high standards, but this was special.

In Lieder, it's not enough just to sing well. A true Lieder artist conveys meaning not only through words but through the way the music connects to ideas. Composers often set poets who were contemporary or near contemporary. Lieder was an art form for  people who were fairly well read and interested in intellectual discourse. Boesch is maturing beautifully. His lower register has a rich, burnished sheen, enhancing the natural agility in his voice. Yet what makes Boesch, for Lieder specialists, the most exciting singer of his generation is the way he combines musical instincts with intelligence.

Liszt's Lieder are the songs of a composer whose true voice lives in the piano. Texts matter, but though they don't fly with the effortlerss glory of Schubert and Schumann. Boesch's commitment to meaning enhances balance. In Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam (S309/1, c 1855) the piano's sparkling, twinkling figures describe snowfall and starlight, a lovely image. For Liszt, though, the atmosphere is magic, and we marvel in its beauty. Heine's poem, however, is ironic.  The spruce is alone, dissociated from its environment, and dreams of a palm tree "fern im Morgenland". How can this be? The unsentimental firmness of Boesch's delivery reminds us that this isn't a "nature" song.
With hardly a pause, Boesch and Martineau began Es muß ein Wunderbares sein (S34 1857). (What a miracle it must be, when two souls are entwined by love.) Oskar von Redwitz, the poet, doesn't  have Heine's acerbic bite, but the two songs enhance each other when done as a pair. Like the image of the trees! Boesch and Martineau followed with O Lieb'; so lang du lieben kannst (S298/2 1843-50, Ferdinand Freiligrath).Th3 (O Love, as long as you are able) Liszt's lilting, circular figures suggest continuity, but Boesch doesn't make the pain in the last strophe "Bald ist ein bõsesWortgesat! O gott ! " (pause) "es war bõs gemeint!" (an even more pained pause) "Der ander aber geht und klagt". Boesch sings the word "klagt" so the hard consonants tear, as if the lover's heart is being ripped. The pretty postlude now seems to emphasize the lover's desolation.

Loreley, (S273/11841) is thus enhanced. "Ich weiss nicht, was so esbedeuten" writes Heine "dass ich so traurig bin", when he describes the Lorelei combing her lovely hair with a golden comb, luring boatmen to their deaths. The delicacy of Boesch's singing echoed the maiden's beauty, and made me, at least, wonder if she. too, might be feeling pain: perhaps she doesn't want to kill,perhaps she's doomed, too, if she dreams of love.  In Vergiftet sind mein Lieder (S289/1844-9, Heine) (My songs are poisoned), the poet blames his bitterness on his lover who poured poison into his "blühende Leben". Again, the imagery of doomed youth and nature. "Serpents dwell in my heart", the poem continues "und dich, Geliebte mein". The poem is "poisoned" but the beauty of Boesch's singing emphasized the love that inspired it. Boesch and Martineau ended with Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh' (S306/2 1859, Goethe). The Romantiker turmoil of the earlier songs dissolves into Goethe's image of stillness."warte nur, waste nur, Ruhest du auch".  Not so much rest, as death.  For an encore, Boesch sang Schubert's setting of the same poem.  "So I don't have to learn the same words twice", he said with a grin. Liszt's setting is more solemn than Schubert's. but the words "warte nur" are repeated so often, even accompanied by the tolling of "bells" in the piano part, that the effect is depersonalized. Schubert's Wandrers Nachtlied (D768) is more subtle, more magical,and more mysterious. With this unusual combination, Boesch,and Martineau made a case for Liszt as a composer of true Lieder in the Romantic tradition, yet also made us appreciate Liszt as a pianist who wrote art song.

For their selection of songs by Richard Strauss, Boesch and Martineau restricted themselves to early works from the period 1885-9, with one song from his relative maturity, four years later. Again, heard together, the songs form an unusual set with insight into the development of Strauss as composer of Lieder, as opposed to composer of sublime art songs. Adolphe Friedrich von Schack (1815-94)  was a pillar of Munich's artistic establishment. In Breit' über mein Haupt (op 19/2 1888), a beauty lets her dark hair fall over the face of her lover and blocks out the world beyond. Consider the similarities between Schack's poem and Paul Heyse's translation of the Spanish poem, In dem Schatten meinen Locken, set by Brahms and by Hugo Wolf at almost the same time as Strauss set von Schack. Both poets were fascinated by the East and the dreams it symbolized. One can hear what a young Münchener like Strauss would have responded to. This was the era from which the Munich Secesion evolved, with its ethos of exoticism, modernity and freedom. In this song, perhaps one can think ahead to Strauss's collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Boesch and Martineau performed two songs to poems by Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg (1812-64), Die Nacht (op 10/3 ) and Allerseelen (op 10/8, 1885). Boesch sang Die Nacht with refinement and brought elegant poise to Allerseelen. Martineau's gentle playing evoked the "duftenden Reseden", the last flowers of summer , and the image of secret, silent glances, amplified by Boesch's immaculate phrasing and hushed tones.  In contrast, Boesch and Martineau presented two other songs, All' mein Gedanlen (op 21/1 1889 Felix Dahn) and Ruhe meine Seele! (op 27/1, 1894, Karl Henkell). Strictly speaking All' mein Gedanlen isn't a "new" song but a  Minnelied first published in the Lochamer Liederbuch of 1460. Like the more famous version by Johannes Brahms in  his 49 Volkslieder (1994), Strauss's version respects the pure, clean lines. Boesch can do simplicity as well as richness.

Strauss's Ruhe, mein  Seele (op 27/1 1894, Karl Henkell) is so lovely that it could rank with Wolf, yet is so ahead of its time that we can hear in it the germ of later Strauss. It could be a companion  piece to Vier letzte Lieder both in subject and the maturity of its style. A few discreet but emphatic chords from the piano from whence the voice part emerges. The vocal phrases are short, six or eight measures in each line, the piano part equally restrained.  Martineau's piano sang short, sparkling figures, describing the sunshine which steals through the dark canopy of leaves in the silent wood, where "nicht ein Lüftchen regt sich leise". In this song. a singer can't hide. Boesch sang with absolute sincerity, each word clear and emotionally direct.

Boesch and Martineau completed their recital with a selection of Schubert Lieder, exquisiitely and intelligently performed, as always. But the real surprises of the evening were the Liszt and Strauss sets, very well chosen and presented, which revealed so much about the composers and their niche in the genre. 

This article also appears in Opera Today

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