Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall

So the first half of Christopher Maltman and Malcolm
Martineau’s recital to a crowded Wigmore Hall audience might have been

The sounds and sights of lagoons and piazzas; the glint of the moon on
gliding gondolas; lilting barcarolles and strumming mandolins: all were
conjured by a varied assortment of songs which threw up some interesting
similarities and contrasts.

FaurÈ’s Cinq mÈlodies ‘de Venise’ of 1891 are
elegant settings of texts by Paul Verlaine; effectively FaurÈ’s first
song-cycle, they are ordered to form a loose narrative and further unified by
motivic and harmonic cross-references. Maltman’s relaxed lyricism in the
opening ‘Mandoline’ was complemented by Martineau’s lightness
of touch as, with remarkable clarity of texture, he mimicked the gentle strains
of the plucked mandolin, ‘[jangling] in the shivering breeze’,
wonderfully supporting the chromatic meanderings of the vocal line. ‘En
sourdine’ (‘Muted’) allowed Maltman to demonstrate both the
rich darkness of his low baritone and his masterfully controlled, delicate head
voice in the closing lines, when ‘the voice of our despair/ the
nightingale shall sing’. After the more urgent, breathless
‘Green’, with its images of a tumultuous beating heart within a
verdant, fresh landscape, ‘A ClymËne’ opened up more mysterious,
ethereal worlds. The ‘mystic barcarolle’ mentioned in the first
phrase of the single-sentence text, encouraged FaurÈ to incorporate a
characteristic rocking motif, and the interleaving dialogue between voice and
accompaniment was expertly shaped. Maltman achieved a breath-taking beauty,
floating the image of ‘Nimbes d’anges dÈfunts,/ Tons et
parfums’ (‘haloes of departed angels/ sounds and scents’)
before settling into the sweet consonance of the final stanza above soft
rippling arpeggios. The final song, ‘C’est l’extase’
(‘It is rapture’) was ardent and impassioned, retreating at the
close with the image of a ‘humble hymn/ On this warm evening, soft and
low’, the easeful rest conveyed by tenderly oscillating fifths in the
piano bass.

Although Schumann’s complementary pair of gondola songs from the
Myrthen cycle do not employ the 6/8 meter typically associated with
the barcarolle, the dotted, dancing rhythms create a light spirit and energy,
which the performers enhanced by moving without a break between the two songs.
Maltman seemed more at home with this idiom, carefully shaping the contrasts
and drawing out the yearning sections of the texts, with particular effect at
the close of ‘Lied II’, elongating the phrases to convey the
lover’s desire to ‘flee, my love,/ across the lagoons’, the
joyful sentiments of the verse emphasised by the insouciant piano after-phrase.
Schubert’s ‘Gondelfahrer’ (‘The Gondolier’) is
more earnest, the rich chordal texture, resonant bass melody in octaves with
the vocal line, and generally low accompaniment register suggestive of the dark
stillness of the deep waters. Setting the same Ferdinand Freiligrath
translation of Thomas Moore that Schumann tackled in his ‘Lied II’,
Mendelssohn introduced a harmonic richness to convey the burning passion of the
eloping lover which Maltman’s fervent vocal colours more than matched.

Reynaldo Hahn’s 1901 cycle, Venezia: Six chansons en dialecte
, brought the Venetian sojourn to an affectionate and blithe
close. Settings of simple dialect verse, these songs were first performed by
the composer, accompanying himself, propelled across the lagoon by two
gondoliers, to the delight of the local passers-by. Joyfully embracing the
characteristic meters and figures of the barcarolle, the songs stay just the
right side of kitsch or parody. The performers expertly controlled the tempo
within and between the songs, pushing on at the close of ‘Sopra
l’acqua indormenzada’ (‘Asleep on the water’) as the
poet-speaker reflects ‘Ridiadesso e fa l’amor!’ (‘now
is the time for laughter and love!’), holding back in the vocalise
melismas which conclude the verses of ‘La barcheta’ (‘The
little boat’). In these gentle reveries, Maltman revealed a delightful
flexibility and delicacy. The more operatic ‘L’avertimento’
(‘The warning’) was followed by erotically charged ‘La
Blondina in gondoleta’ (‘The blonde girl in the gondola’).
Maltman serenely communicated the tranquil beauty of the scene as ‘Una
solo bavesela/ Sventola va I so’ caveli’ (‘Just the suspicion
of a breeze/ gently played with her hair’) before the more urgent
ecstasies of the final verse: ‘No, mai pi˘ tanto beato/ Ai mii zorni no
son st‡’ (‘Never again was I to be so/ happy in all my
life!’). An unfortunate slip at the opening of ironically titled
‘Che pec‡!’ (‘What a shame’), did not unsettle Maltman,
and he swept rhetorically through this drama of matrimonial disillusionment,
the sentiments of the text aptly enhanced by the asymmetrical accents in the
piano accompaniment. The final song, ‘La primavera’
(‘Spring’), concluded in a warm blaze of joy.

After the interval, Maltman returned to more familiar territory, although
the opening Schubert songs diverted the journey from the Schubertiade’s
intimate salons to the public domain of the Italian opera companies that were
so popular and successful in Vienna at this time. Composed for the leading bass
singer, Luigi Lablanche, the three settings of Pietro Metastasio are far from
predictable. ‘L’incanto degli occhi’ (‘The magic of
eyes’) drew forth a range of colours and sentiments, from earnest
sincerity to impudent playfulness. ‘Il traditor deluso’ (‘The
deluded traitor’) places an energetic aria after a rather perfunctory
recitative, and Maltman and Martineau successfully created dramatic momentum
which climaxed in pulsing octave leaps to convey the melodramatic ‘raging
terror’ in the breast of the eponymous anti-hero. ‘Il modo di
prender moglie’ (‘How to choose a wife’) displays a
surprising Rossinian satirical wit, greatly enjoyed by performers and audience

Although not the most esteemed German Romantic poet, R¸ckert inspired many
of the finest nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers, including Schumann,
Richard Strauss, and of course Mahler. Schubert was the first to find the poet
congenial, and ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (‘You are repose’) is
one of his finest songs: Maltman’s poignant evocation of a quietude
troubled by inner pain was deeply moving, and Martineau’s wonderfully
judged melodic ornaments enhanced the affecting pathos. The performers relished
the challenge of ‘Sei mir gegruflt’ (‘I greet you’) with
its recurring refrain, injecting variety and contrast into the repetitions, and
maintaining a controlled poise.

With Mahler’s R¸ckert settings, the evening reached its emotional and
musical climax. Maltman utilised all the resources of his diverse baritone,
from the airy utterance of the opening phrase of ‘Ich atmet’ einen
linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’), to the honest
directness of imploring command, ‘Love the sun, she has golden
hair’ in ‘Liebst du um Schˆnheit’ (‘If you love for
beauty’), to the sombre depths of ‘Am Mitternacht’ (‘At
midnight’). Martineau’s alertness, his ability to simultaneously
accompany, support, lead and engage with the voice, was superbly demonstrated
in these songs. The sparseness of ‘Am Mitternacht’ was enriched by
variation of idiom: recitative-like declamation gives way to melismatic
outburst, controlled chordal alternations erupt in the final bars to convey the
force of the poet-speaker’s declaration of spiritual love.

According to the programme notes, Mahler explained that ‘Ich bin der
Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’) was
inspired by “the feeling that tills one and rises to the tip of
one’s tongue but goes no further”, and the restrained
self-possession of this intelligent, emotive performance perfectly captured
these sentiments.

A Verdian encore revealed that, despite the rich variety offered to a
resoundingly appreciative audience, Maltman has many more musical, theatrical
and emotional resources to draw upon.

Claire Seymour


FaurÈ: Cinq mÈlodies ‘de Venise’; Four Gondoliers’
Robert Schumann: Two Venetian songs from Myrthen
Franz Schubert: Gondelfahrer
Felix Mendelssohn: Venetianesches Gondellied
Reynaldo Hahn: Venezia — Six chansons en dialecte vÈnitien
Franz Schubert: Three Lieder to texts by Metastasio; Three Lieder to texts by
Gustav Mahler: Five Lieder to texts by R¸ckert

image_description=Christopher Maltman [Photo by Levon Biss courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Christopher Maltman, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 11 April, 2011.
product_id=Above: Christopher Maltman [Photo by Levon Biss courtesy of Askonas Holt]