Heine through Song: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau open a new Wigmore Hall season

The re-commencement of cultural calendars and customs can be reassuring.
But, in fact this recital was far from a routine affair, not least because
I doubt that many in the capacity audience were familiar with the lieder of
Robert Franz (1815-1892), nine of whose songs opened this concert in which
the work of Robert Schumann served as a landing light. Moreover, one of the
intriguing aspects of this thoughtful programme was the opportunity that it
provided to compare settings of the same text by different composers,
either as presented side-by-side, or as recalled from oft-visited memories.
And, the relationships intimated by the programme were in no way arbitrary.
Franz, who by 1842 had become director of the Singakademie in
Halle, where he organised choral festivals, sent his first book of songs to
Schumann, who published it in 1843 having written a detailed and favourable
review of the edition in his Neue Zeitschrift f¸r Musik. Franz
Liszt, who was later one of Franz’s influential supporters, published his
own book about Franz in 1872.

The lied was the sole outlet for Franz’s compositional creativity. Born in
Halle in 1815, he composed more than 300 songs. If the nine songs presented
here are a good benchmark, then Franz’s predominantly strophic songs don’t
run a gamut of emotions and moods. Indeed, the composer himself professed,
‘My Lieder are not meant to create excitement but rather peace and calm’.
But, they display consummate crafting of small-scale poetic canvases, never
melodramatic, always discretely appropriate to the sentiments of the text.

And, the songs have a compelling fluency, which Boesch and Martineau
emphasised by flowing briskly segue through the songs. Perhaps, in fact, it
might have been nice occasionally to have had a little time to pause and
take in the perfume of each individual song; and, a similar forward impetus
characterised the whole recital, Schumann’s ‘Belsazar’ closing the first
half almost as an appendix to the final song of the Liszt sequence,
‘Loreley’, and Leiderkreis racing onwards from the six songs by
Schumann that commenced the second half. Even within songs, there was
infrequently room for ponderance upon changes of emotional direction; we
were carried on a magic carpet that offered vistas of diverse terrain but
did not rest to take in the view of the fluctuating Romantic landscapes.

But, to return to Franz’s lied, these were delivered from the first with
striking directness, definition and focus. Boesch’s baritone is a mighty
beast, but when the poet-speaker reflected, “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’,/
So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh’ (When I look into your eyes, all my
pain and sorrow vanish), it sank low in wonder and diminished to a
spine-tingling breath-whisper; Martineau, unfailingly refined, relayed the
urgency of ‘Ich will meine Selle tauchen’ (Let me bathe my soul) with a
wonderfully light touch. ‘Im Rhein’, shone with nobility and reverence,
while ‘Am leuchtenden’ (One bright summer morning) evinced, first, breezy
relaxation, then, as Boesch made expressive use of his head voice, the
pathos of nature which weeps at man’s foolishness. Martineau’s piano
accompaniment was an eerie Will-o’-the-wisp in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’
(I wept in my dream), and in this song much was made of dynamic contrasts
and of the drama supplied by the motivic drama.

Not surprisingly there was greater sensuous and impassioned rhetoric in the
sequence of lieder by Liszt. The bitterness of ‘Vergiftet sind meine
Lieder’ (My songs are filled with poison) was quite shocking, the bizarre
twistings of the piano playout adding further painful contortions to the
singer’s angry, declamatory sneer, somehow simultaneously ironic and
honest: ‘Ich trage im Herzen viel Schlagen,/ Und dich, Geliebte mein’ (Many
serpents dwell in my heart,/ and you, beloved, too). In contrast, ‘Ein
Fichten baum steht einsam’ (A spruce tree stands lonely) sank low in
contemplative inscrutability, while the unusual melodic perambulations of
‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) were sung pianissimo as if transfixed. This song whetted the appetite for
Schumann’s setting of this song, which would follow the interval. Indeed,
both the Franz and Liszt sequences were punctuated at the close with a song
by Schumann, serving as signposts to the second half of the recital when
the composer would be placed exclusively in the spotlight. Appropriately,
‘Abends am Strond’ (Evening by the sea) was sung with carefully measured
sentimentality while, later, ‘Belsazar’ rang with dramatic colour and
clamour, the text made vivid, almost ‘tactile’ in its terror, the piano
accompanied tumbling riotously.

The high drama, though, never excluded subtlety, and the performers’
control of tone, timbre and dynamic was even more strongly felt in the
later Schumann songs, dating from 1840-41 – a time in Schumann’s life when
elation and despondency must have seemed his mutual friends, the ecstasy
of his love for Clara competing with despair and frustration that her
father would not allow them to marry. Martineau’s tender, touching playout
to ‘Die beiden Grenadier’ (The Two Grenadiers; from Romanzen und Balladen II Op.49) was an eloquent, soulful statement
of the French prisoner-of-war’s unwavering dedication to his Emperor and
its delicacy prepared perfectly for the first flower-song of Myrten Op.25, ‘Die Lotosblume’. Here, though the melody is simple,
Boesch found much nuance in the fragmented line, and the piano’s startling
change of harmonic direction with the line ‘Der Mond, der is ihr Buhle’
(The moon is her lover) plunged us into nocturnal raptures. But, Schumann’s
lachrymose inclinations returned until the ‘solitary tear’ of ‘Was will die
einsame Tr‰ne?’ dissolved, a mere memory of disappointed love; and, the
ironic wistfulness of ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’, contrasted starkly with the
ethereal idealism of Liszt’s setting. The star of ‘Es fiel ein Reif in der
Fr¸hlingsnacht’ (There fell a frost one night in spring) sparkled with
magical softness.

And, so, on to Liederkreis – the Op.24 set, heard less frequently
than the Op.39 collection of Eichendorff settings that Schumann began four
months later. The nine poems drawn from the ‘Junge Leiden’ (Youthful
sorrows) section of Heine’s Buch der Lieder must have seemed to
express the composer’s own longing for a lover who is just out of reach,
and Boesch and Martineau conveyed every fluctuation of emotion felt by the
poet-narrator, from his somnolent rising (‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und
trage’) – the lazy rubato here was delicious authentic – through the
shifting kaleidoscope of love’s dramas, to the tired stoicism of ‘Anfangs
wollt’ ich fast verzagen’ (At first I almost lost heart).

The performers’ ability to keep the narrative pushing onwards, even when
quietly taking us into their confidence at moments of intimacy, was notable.
Thus, after the agitation of ‘Es treibt mich hin’ (I’m driven this way) had
spilled into the angry piano postlude, the harmonic suspensions of ‘Ich
wandelte under den Bl‰umen’ (I wandered among the trees) transported us
into the melancholy of the mysteries which trouble the meandering poet,
only for the piano’s dry hammerings in ‘Lieb Liebchen, leg’s H‰ndchen’ (Lay
your hand on my heart, my love) to snap us back to the grim reality of
death as the carpenter fashions the poet’s coffin. Boesch’s wonderfully
mellifluous rendition of ‘Schˆne Wiege meiner Leiden’ did not neglect the
almost insane wretchedness of thwarted love, a desperate anguish which
overflowed into Martineau’s dark farewell, which was a veritable narrative
in itself.

There was a lovely give-and-take within the rolling phrases of the
barcarolle, ’Berg und Burgen schau’n herunter’ (Mountains and castles look
down), which temporarily assuaged the violence of ‘Warte, warte, wilder
Schiffmann’ (Wait, O wait, wild sailor). And, a similar rhythmic
flexibility captured the ambiguous oscillation between expectation and
resignation of the final song, ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’; here, Boesch’s
tender head-voice – ‘Doch auf neu’ alte Glut sie belebt,/ Wenn der Liebe
Geist einst ¸ber sie schwebt’ (But the old glow shall revive them again,
when one day Love’s spirit floats over them) – trembled with the beauty of
fragile hope, as if the poet barely dared to believe.

Finally, two encores, from Dichterliebe, offered a microcosm of
the recital’s wonderfully persuasive wanderings amid the emotional extremes
of a poet’s love: ‘Hˆr’ Ich das Liedchen klingen’, in which the beloved’s
song makes the poet’s breast burst with ‘wild affliction’, and ‘Ein
Jungling liebt ein M‰dchen’, which dismissed Love’s capriciousness with a
swift swipe of insouciant sarcasm.

Claire Seymour

Florian Boesch (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Robert Franz – ‘Im wunderschˆnen Monat Mai’ Op.25 No.5, ‘Die Rose, die
Lilie’ Op.34 No.5, ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’’ Op.44 No.5, ‘Ich will
meine Seele tauchen Op.43 No.4, ‘Im Rhein’ Op.18 No.2, ‘Hˆr ich das
Liedchen klingen’ Op.5 No.11, ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ Op.11 No.2,
‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ Op.25 No.3, ‘Alln‰chtlich im Traume’ Op.9
No.4; Robert Schumann – ‘Abends am Strand’ Op.45 No.3; Franz Liszt – ‘Ein
Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ S309, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ S287, ‘Im Rhein,
im schˆnen Strome’ S272/1, ‘Vergiftet sind meine Lieder’ S289, ‘Loreley’
S273; Robert Schumann – ‘Belsazar’ Op.57, ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ Op.49
No.1, Three lieder from Myrthen Op.25 (‘Die Lotosblume’, ‘Was will
die einsame Tr‰ne?’, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’), ‘Tragˆdie’ Op.64 No.3, Liederkreis Op.24.

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 8th September 2018.

product_title=Florian Boesch (baritone) and Malcolm Martineau (piano), Wigmore Hall, 8th September 2018
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Florian Boesch

Photo credit: Lukas Beck