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Cheltenham Festival 2008 (8): Music by Schubert. Florian Boesch (bass-baritone); Roger Vignoles (piano) Pittville Pump Room 18.7.2008 (JQ)

Franz Schubert:
Der Wanderer D489
Der Wanderer D649
Der Wanderer an den Mond D870
Aus Heliopolis I D753
Aus Heliopolis II D754

Schwanengesang D957
In der Ferne
Kriegers Ahnung
Am Meer
Ihr Bild
Die Stadt
Der Doppelgänger
Der Atlas
Die Taubenpost D965a (formerly D957 No 14)

The second instalment of the Cheltenham Festival’s mini Schubert-fest brought the young Austrian bass-baritone, Florian Boesch to the Pittville Pump Room, the Regency building outside the town centre, which is such a perfect venue for chamber music.

Boesch is a sometime pupil of Robert Holl. Since making his debut in 2003 he has undertaken a number of prestigious engagements. I had not previously heard him, though subsequent to this recital I saw that he had impressed my colleague Evan Dickerson, who reviewed a recital he gave at the Wigmore Hall last year. After hearing this fine Cheltenham recital I’m sorry that I hadn’t heard Boesch sing before.

is not, of course, a song cycle in the way that Die Schöne Müllerin or Winterreise are.  The collection was assembled after Schubert’s death by the publisher, Haslinger, consisting of seven settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab and six by Heinrich Heine. A fourteenth poem, by Johann Seidl, was appended to these settings by Haslinger but nowadays there’s a tendency to dissociate that song, Die Taubenpost, from the rest of Schwanengesang and on this occasion Florian Boesch treated it very clearly as an advertised encore. The length of Schwanengesang, with or without Die Taubenpost, is insufficient to constitute a full recital programme and so Boesch prefaced it with a group of five other songs.

This opening group was well chosen. Boesch opened with Der Wanderer, a setting from 1816 of a poem by von Lübeck and followed it with another song, bearing the same title but setting a completely different poem. This second setting, of words by Friedrich von Schlegel, was composed in 1819. Unfortunately the programme book carried no information about any of the opening songs, other that their Deutsch catalogue number. From the very start of the first song Boesch made a positive impression, singing with firm, round tone. This opening item was mainly sung in a pensive way, though the music of the third stanza was, rightly, more animated. I thought it was brave to start a recital “from cold” with such a song, where a thoughtful mood has to be established at once, but Boesch fully justified the choice. The second song was lighter, for the poem is more positive and philosophically straightforward.

Continuing the theme of the wanderer, Boesch then gave us Der Wanderer an den Mond (1826). This was an intelligent choice since it linked to the two previous songs and because the poem is by Johann Seidl, the poet of Die Taubenpost. I enjoyed Boesch’s rendition of this song.

Boesch then offered the two 1822 Mayrhofer settings that Schubert extracted from a longer sequence of poems. Graham Johnson describes the first of these two poems as “the poet’s personal Kennst du das Land.” I thought Boesch communicated this song excellently. I especially admired the soft high notes in his performance, for example in the last line of the first stanza (“Wandt’ ich mich nun, und ward entzückt.”) The second of these songs is more powerful in tone, emphatic even. Boesch brought real presence to this piece, achieving a stirring climax in the last stanza.

Then we heard the seven Rellstab poems from Schwanengesang. Not all artists sing these – or the Heine settings – in the published order and, indeed, I noticed Roger Vignoles flitting around in his copy once or twice between songs. I’ve listed the songs at the head of this review in the order in which Boesch gave them.

In ‘Liebesbotschaft’ he was very much the smiling lover, evidenced not just by his facial expression but, more significantly, by the velvety legato with which he delivered the song.  There’s a greater degree of eagerness in ‘Frühlingssensucht’ and this came across in the performance. The change to a more passionate mood for the final stanza was well realised by both artists. In the famous ‘Ständchen’ Boesch delighted us with warm tone and smooth legato phrasing.

‘Abschied’ is a cheerful leave taking and this was emphasised by the irresistible way in which Roger Vignoles made the piano accompaniment fairly bound along. In his playing he really conjured up an image of a coach and horses bowling down the road. Boesch’s singing was relaxed but he conveyed a great deal, not least when the emotional temperature rises in the final stanza. ‘In der Ferne’ is a much darker song. In a doom laden introduction Roger Vignoles tellingly conveyed the tension even before his singer had begun.  When Boesch joined in he and Vignoles took the music deeper still. Schubert’s music is very tense in this song and the performers caught this splendidly. The last phrases sounded almost to have been torn from Boesch.

After a gripping account of ‘Aufenthalt’ the Rellstab group ended with ‘Kriegers Ahnung’. Vignoles provided a pregnant, troubled introduction, presaging a dramatic and involving performance. This song is a mini-drama, requiring a different set of responses from the performers in each stanza. Boesch’s singing had almost an operatic dimension and I mean it as a compliment when I say that we needed a break after this performance.

I see no problem whatsoever in breaking up Schwanengesang with an interval between the Rellstab and Heine settings. In fact this works very well, I think – on the CD in the Hyperion complete Schubert song series Graham Johnson even interpolates another song between the two halves of the collection! After the interval the Heine group began with ‘Das Fischermädchen’. The Heine settings generally are more forward looking and ambitious than the Rellstab songs but ‘Das Fischermädchen’ is deceptive for this easy, lilting setting exudes surface charm. I admired the way that Boesch and Vignoles negotiated the tricky little bits of rubato.

It’s with ‘Am Meer’ that Schubert begins to plumb new depths of expression (no pun intended!). The opening piano chords were weighted marvellously by Vignoles. In a wonderfully atmospheric performance both artists suggested the vast horizons of the ocean. Their reading conveyed the deep still power of the sea and in the last verse the performance had huge power.

The suspense at the start of ‘Ihr Bild’ was sustained very successfully so that the potency of the last two lines of the song was all the more telling. ‘Die Stadt’ was quite magnificent. Vignoles played the prelude with great mystery, beginning to generate a compelling atmosphere, which was not just continued but enhanced when Boesch began to sing. A riveting performance culminated in a tremendously powerful rendition of the last verse. Then came the bare, uncompromising music of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. Boesch was terrifyingly intense in this song but he channelled the histrionic power very intelligently.  Finally he gave an immense account of ‘Der Atlas’. In this he put across superbly the frustrated anger of Atlas under his burden. My notes read “Bitingly intense. Burning. Dramatic.” The performance was all of that and, as had been the case from the very start of the recital, Boesch’s singing was matched and complemented by the wonderful pianism of Roger Vignoles.

I think that after these last few songs the audience needed the emotional release of applause and Boesch and Vignoles were rewarded with a prolonged and thoroughly deserved ovation. At length we were given Die Taubenpost. Boesch implicitly and charmingly made it clear that this was effectively an encore by saying at the start that, “as John Cleese would say: ‘now for something completely different’.”  The song, in which Schubert appears to be in his most relaxed vein, was given a very nicely turned performance. Boesch’s singing was light and easy and, yet again, the piano playing of Vignoles was a delight.

As I’ve indicated, I hope, the singing of Florian Boesch made a very positive impression. He has a fine dynamic range, ample variety of tone colour at his disposal and his diction is admirably clear. The voice is well produced from top to bottom. He has a secure, sonorous lower range and the sounds at the top of his compass are delightful and free. I think it’s relevant to say a word about his presentation of the songs. He consistently illustrates and emphasises the music he is singing through a very wide range of facial expressions and physical gestures. On another day, in another mood I might have found this overdone and something of a distraction. However, the quality of his singing and the conviction that he brought to everything disarmed criticism.

It’s unfair to make comparisons with the recital the previous night by Allan Clayton for Boesch is currently the more mature artist, further advanced in his career, and both singers gave a great deal of pleasure, albeit their styles were very different. However, I think it is pertinent to make two points of comparison. Clayton’s German sounded fine to me but I think Boesch scored because the language is his native tongue and he was even more at ease with it than was Clayton. However, even more important for me was that Boesch sang from memory whereas Clayton had a score in front of him on a stand. Clayton made lots of eye contact with the audience and only used the score for reference but the fact that Boesch was completely unfettered by a copy allowed him to do even more with the songs, I felt, and there was absolutely no barrier to communication with the audience.

Besides the intelligence and commitment of both singers their recitals had one other thing in common. Both were superbly served by their respective accompanists. Roger Vignoles enjoys, deservedly, an international reputation as a recital pianist. I don’t know how often he and Florian Boesch have worked together before but on this occasion they forged an impressive partnership and the sense of teamwork was epitomised by the big hug they exchanged during the applause at the end of ‘Der Atlas’.

This was an exciting and very involving recital and another great success in the Cheltenham Festival’s exploration of Schubert’s great song cycles and collections. Two down, one to go!

John Quinn

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