The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence. Amazingly, the second recital in thisd series (Boesch, Martineau) was even better ! Please also read my review here.
The Wigmore Hall's unique reputation springs from "the experience of music made by supremely gifted musicians for listeners open to what they may have to say", to quote John Gilhooly, the Wigmore Hall's Artistic Director. Simple words, but radical words in the current cultural climate where compromise means more than quality. The real way ahead for serious music is to treat it seriously. Excellence is by definition, "elitist" or it wouldn't be "excellent". But that basic ideal is simple. "The intensity of emotions, the concentration, the joy, the spiritual highs and lows, and the sheer vitality of what happens at the Wigmore Hall", Gilhooly continues, "all combine to create a sense of living art, renewed and refreshed in the moment of every performance".
"Don't let the song recital become an endangered species", Gilhooly writes in Classical Music magazine (August 2015). Great as it will be, the Schubert series is only part of the 96 song recitals this season. Head-on, Gilhooly confronts the fashion for marketing Lieder other than on its own terms. "If your experience of a song recital is of someone bluffing their way through pieces they barely know, why should you go back for more?" Lieder is fascinating because it connects to sources deep in European culture. Perhaps it's not an easy sell in a non-intellectual age, but the Wigmore Hall meets these challenges by providing the best, aiming to "open minds to this vast imaginary world", the ocean of creative experience unleashed by the Romantic revolution. Capital "R", Romanticism, not lower case.
This inaugural concert featured Florian Boesch and Graham Johnson, both icons in Lieder circles. It also started with a rarity to pique the interest of the Wigmore Hall's core Lieder audience, who were out in force. This was Schubert's Lebenstraum D1a, a fragment written without text, only recently and somewhat controversially identified with Lebenstraum D39. Here we heard a version created for performance by Reinhard Van Hoorickx. Johnson played the original part for piano, followed by the new arrangement based on the poem by Gabriele von Baumberg, which formed the basis of the later song. Bear in mind that the fragment was writen in 1810, when Schubert was 13. Boesch and Johnson followed this with a set of Goethe songs from 1815, Der Fischer D225, Erster Verlust D226 and Der Gott und die Bayajadere D 254. The first two displayed Schubert's fascination with driven, repeating rhythms, the last with his fondness for long declamatory ballads, both styles he would continue to explore.
An Chloen D 462 and Hochzeit-Lied D 463 were delivered with graceful purity, the masculinity of Boesch's voice gently modulated to bring out their charms. The greater depth of In der Mitternacht D464 and Trauer der Liebe D 465 suited Boesch's characteristic timbre. Trauer der Liebe was particularly effective, as it's a very good poem. Although Jacobi employs typically Romantic images like mourning doves, dark forest foliage and whispering winds, the poem deals with unsentimental emotional strength. "Freiden gibt den treuen Herzen nur ein künftig Paradies" (Happiness is given to loyal hearts only in a future Paradise) Boesch sang with pointed dignity, suggesting the intellectual rigour in Jacobi's poetry. In Die Perle D 466, the text refers to a man who can't see the joys of Springtime because he's lost a pearl he found on a pilgrimage in distant lands. Schubert's music is jolly enough, invoking "Birke, Buch' unde Erle" (birch, beech and alder) but Jacobi's punchline is altogether more understated. "Was mir gebricht", sang Boesch quietly, "ist mehr als eines Perle".
The Jacobi set concluded with Lied des Orpheus, als er in die Hölle ging D 474. Johnson played the long piano introduction, so it felt like an overture to a miniature drama. Schubert chose to set only the section of the very long poem, in which Orpheus battles flames, monsters and shadows to enter Hades. Almost schizoid frenzy contrasts with eerie stillness. Jacobi and Schubert knew full well what the story of Orpheus symbolizes. Orpheus doesn't interact much with other characters, so the drama is, by its very nature, an inner monologue rather than a narrative. Orpheus doesn't save Eurydice but in the process, discovers the power of creative art. (read my review of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House here. Better still, go, because it is very well thought through and an excellent show).
An die Nachtigall D497 1816, Der Tod und das Mädchen D531 (1817) and Täglich zu singen D533, 1817), then five songs to texts by Schubert's strange companion, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer Der Schiffer D 536 1817, Memnon D 541 1817, Auf der Donau D553 1817, Aus Heliopolis 1 D 753 1822 and Aus Heliopolis II D 754 1822. Mayrhofer's poems reference Classical Antiquity to mask the inner demons the poet faced. How he must have dreamed of an "unbewölktes Leben" (a life without clouds) To some extent, Schubert may have intuited what lay beneath the shimmering surface calm.
Then, on to Der blind Knabe D833 1825, and Totengräbers heimweh D842 1825 (Jacob Nikolaus Craigher de Jachelutta), the latter performed so well that it set off spontaneous applause - genuine applause, totally sincere, not daft "audience participation". Boesch beamed with appreciation. It's a marvellous song, and was done so well! Please read my piece on this song here. Then, back to "Happy Schubert", Das Lied im Grünem D 917, 1827, (Johann Anton Friedrich Reil). Schubert and Reil, an actor, were friends, so the song may be a memory of good times in the countryside, in the past. We know , now, that Schubert was already ill with the disease that killed him 16 months later, but Schubert didn't, and nor did Reil. It is enough that we can enjoy this lovely song for itself and revel in its freshness.
This review also appears in Opera Today. Boesch will be singing another recital in this Wigmore Hall series on Thursday 24th September, which I'll write about, too.
Photo of Boesch and Johnson by Simon Jay Price