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S & H Recital Review

Schubert Birthday Concert: Geraldine McGreevy, Christian Gerhaher, Graham Johnson, Wigmore Hall, January 31st 2004 (ME)

I’m sure that Graham Johnson was referring to people like me when he wrote in tonight’s programme that certain connoisseurs might regret the presence of so many ‘plums’ in one evening, but of course even I recognize that there are times when it’s right to assemble a programme of beloved works, and this was the perfect occasion – a celebration of the anniversary of the composer to whom Johnson always refers as ‘our beloved Franz Schubert,’ with the music chosen exclusively by the Friends of the Wigmore Hall. I had no qualms about letting go of my habitual desire to experience new insights at a recital, although I did wonder how some pieces managed to get into the final cut (can a large number of Friends really have voted for the Szene aus Faust as opposed to, say, Im Frühling? )

The singers were a contrasting pair, and I do not mean that in the sense of being a soprano and a baritone: Geraldine McGreevy must be one of the least ‘hyped’ singers around today – her career seems to be progressing quietly, without much glitz about it, whereas Christian Gerhaher had barely made his Wigmore Hall debut before one found him popping up all over the place, copiously endowed with lavish praise and, astonishingly, making recordings of Schubert’s song cycles, not to mention a forthcoming Schumann Dichterliebe. Happily, he appears to have come through the hype relatively unscathed, and he has lost some of his rather irritating mannerisms, but this is still not an especially remarkable voice: he is one of half a dozen or so baritones who make a very pleasing sound, but he does not possess any special quality that would make me want to listen to him in preference to others. He opened the evening with ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ which would certainly be high on my list of least favourite Schubert songs: as Gerald Moore wrote, ‘…the beloved sends greetings and kisses with awful tedium about twenty times’ and it’s quite a challenge for the singer to vary those expressions of love – Gerhaher sang it with a smooth line and confident projection, also much in evidence during ‘Greisengesang’ with its taxing low notes.

McGreevy’s voice is similarly pleasing rather than exceptional, but she has a freshness and directness of approach which sometimes brings Elly Ameling to mind, and her singing of ‘Lachen und Weinen’ was unfussy and had just enough charm not to be too cloying. The following song ‘Du bist die Ruh’ is surely one of Schubert’s most challenging, and it was here given a very fine performance, maybe just lacking the perfect finish to ‘deinem Glanz’ but shaping ‘Oh füll es ganz!’ beautifully – Graham Johnson accompanied her with loving skill, although there were times elsewhere in the programme where I found his playing uncharacteristically percussive and detached. The soprano’s most successful singing came in the two ‘Suleika’ songs, where she gave just the right note of enraptured bliss at ‘Ach, die wahre Herzenskunde’ and conveyed all the beloved’s breathless emotion at ‘Eile denn zu meinem Lieben.’ Graham Johnson clearly relished the brisk accompaniment in the second song, but in the first I would have liked a more sensitive transition at that wonderful moment after ‘Vielgeliebten’ when the piano part begins its devoted reflection.

Gerhaher’s ‘Erlkönig’ was workmanlike rather than frisson – inducing, but he gave a fine performance of ‘Die Taubenpost’ showing how much he has grown in musical stature since I first heard him sing it about eighteen months ago. Seidl is not everyone’s favourite poet, but he called forth from Schubert some of his most perfect songs, including ‘Wiegenlied’ with its wonderfully evocative rocking accompaniment, sung with warmth and tenderness by Geraldine McGreevy, and ‘Im Freien’ which was given a well judged performance by Gerhaher – ‘Durch die blanken Scheiben sehn / Augen, die mir gut!’ went particularly well.

‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ would definitely be high on my list of favourites: I think it is one of the greatest songs in the whole repertoire, and it was fitting that it should be here as the penultimate piece: Gerhaher gave it a stoically determined performance, strong on commitment and ease of line but weak on that essential sense of a journey which this song must have. With similar appropriateness, ‘An die Musik’ concluded the scheduled programme, sung with sweet devotion by the soprano, who also gave the single encore, ‘Ganymed’ which was apparently one of the ‘also – ran’ selections. How could one do other than leave the hall enveloped in a rosy glow, after being warmed by so many perfect songs by the composer who, as Johnson remarks in his programme notes, knew how to reach his public and to keep them enchanted for nearly two centuries.


Melanie Eskenazi




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