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Schubert: Christopher Maltman (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.4.2010 (MB)

Schwanengsang, D 957

Some of Schubert’s strangest music may be found in his final collection of songs, Schwanengesang. It is an unsettling collection and it unsettled here, though perhaps not to the extent that last November’s quite outstanding performance of Die schöne Müllerin from the same artists, Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson. That cycle and Winterreise possess an intrinsic unity, narrative and otherwise, that was never intended for the songs in the present collection, but there can be opportunity, in imparting a unity of one’s own – as, essentially, Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger did in the first place. Maltman and Johnson had no intention of shirking that possibility, the ‘cycle’, never light in the first place, darkening considerably through the Heine settings. There were a few technical blemishes. Maltman’s intonation sometimes wandered, especially in the higher register; though this did not bother me unduly, it might have done some. And Johnson on occasion could sound a little effortful, as if Schubert’s piano writing did not come so easily to him as once it had, though one should not exaggerate. On the whole, however, this proved an excellent performance.

One was certainly drawn in from the very opening, the piano sounding the murmuring brooklet (‘Rauschendes Bächlein’), to be followed by the baritone, this water, as so often in Schubert, suggesting far more than just a natural phenomenon. The change of mood in the third stanza of this opening Rellstab setting, Liebesbotschaft, was subtle yet palpable, telling of ‘her’, whoever she may be, lost in her dreams. In Kriegers Ahnung, the agitated insistence of the piano part came across clearly, if, as I suggested above, a little less readily than once it might have done: still, there is nothing ‘easy’ about Schubert in any case. Maltman brought to the final stanza an almost Wagnerian climax – many a battle still calls – before subsiding into desolation. The expectancy of the following song, Frühlings-Sehnsucht was thus all the more poignant, and all the more ready to be dashed, especially as the protagonist’s Romantic ardour increased. Much the same could be said of Ständchen, an unsettling serenade if ever there were one, all the more so for its relative containment. Thus, when Maltman really let rip in the second stanza of Aufenthalt – his tears as waves – the sentiment was overwhelming. Johnson always proved adept at teasing meaning from Schubert’s modulations, nowhere more so than in the interludes to the final song from this group, Abschied.

And so, on to Heine. ‘Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas!’ we heard (‘I, unfortunate Atlas!’) Unfortunate, indeed wretched, he sounded, though, quite rightly, richly so: Maltman’s is a beautiful voice. The contrast between major and minor was telling in the first stanza of Ihr Bild and, still more revealing, almost eradicated in its final stanza, as the lover tells of having lost ‘her’. Only Mozart is quite so heartbreaking when he smiles through tears. I used the word ‘unsettling’ earlier: it is apt too for the strange harmonies of Die Stadt, which here sounded close to, arguably beyond, the world of the late piano sonatas. It was an excellent idea to move without pause into the beauty of loneliness instantiated in Am Meer. I could not help but think that the bitterness with which the final poison of tears is recounted might well, for the composer, refer to Schubert’s ‘other’ poison(s) too. And then, Der Doppelgänger, that terrible, unbearable song, almost, but not quite a scena: just to watch Maltman, let alone hear him, one would have known what sort of ghostly confrontation this was. The touching sincerity of Die Taubenpost could not but sound strained after that. Two encores, Herbst and Der Winterabend, both beautifully, limpidly performed, continued, but unsurprisingly could not quite achieve, the dissipation of such tension.

This performance, like those of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, has been recorded for the Wigmore Hall Live in-house record label.


Mark Berry

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