Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)/Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. live, 11 February 2010, Wigmore Hall, London. DDD
German Texts and English translations included
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0046 [77:31]
Following on from his live recording of Die schöne Müllerin, which was released shortly before this present disc (see review), Christopher Maltman appears in Schubert’s second great Wilhelm Müller song cycle. I admired the performance of Die schöne Müllerin very much and it’s good to be able to report that this Winterreise is just as fine.
Christopher Maltman, aided once again by wonderfully intuitive and supportive playing by Graham Johnson, delivers a searching and deeply satisfying account of Schubert’s late masterpiece. There’s less of the vocal lightness that I noted in Die schöne Müllerin but I think that’s entirely appropriate for this darker cycle. However, Maltman’s artistry is just as striking and his range of vocal colouring and dynamic shading is once again extremely impressive. I found it particularly interesting to listen one afternoon to both cycles together with only a fairly short gap between. That may not be an experience to repeat very often - each of the cycles really needs to stand alone, as it were. However, it was fascinating, as a one-off, to hear these two artists in both cycles and to savour Schubert’s invention - and theirs.
Winterreise is indeed a journey on all sorts of levels and by the time you reach the end of this performance you really do feel you’ve accompanied Christopher Maltman through several types of terrain - both musical and spiritual and, through poetic imagery, the illusion of physical terrain. The beginning of the journey is musically auspicious. The pace set by Johnson and Maltman isn’t a trudge but neither is there any spring in the traveller’s step: this is a forlorn, sad tread. Yet even here, though there may be little to cheer the onlooker’s spirits, one can take pleasure in the musical detail, not least in the expert touches of rubato in the fourth stanza.
And, time and again, these artists evidence splendid attention to detail, though not in a way that distracts the listener from the bigger picture. ‘Der Lindenbaum’, for instance, gets a finely detailed reading from both performers while in the very next song, ‘Wasserflut’, Maltman displays exemplary control at all dynamic levels. A little further on it’s Johnson’s turn to catch the ear with a small but perceptive detail at the start of ‘Die Post’. Notice how he varies the dynamic of the post horn motif, brilliantly suggesting the horn call at a distance, echoing round the countryside.
The artists bring out the forward-looking aspects of Schubert’s writing at times. One example is ‘Irrlicht’ and, even more so, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ where the spare writing almost prefigures the Second Viennese School.
Though the whole of Winterreise is magnificent, both musically and dramatically, the final few songs are, for me, the interpretative touchstone of a performance. This is definitely not a performance that disappoints in any respect during these last few songs. ‘Die Wegweiser’ is desolate and sparse. ‘Das Wirthaus’ is superb, not least for the way that Graham Johnson delivers the piano introduction. Every chord is beautifully weighted and invested with meaning, though there’s absolutely no sense of over-interpretation. When the singer enters there’s a desolate, numb tone in Christopher Maltman’s voice and he and Johnson sustain genuine tension throughout the song . The last two lines are delivered with weary defiance.
After a brief show of defiance in ‘Mut!’ the desolate, drained mood returns in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ and will not be denied. Maltman is resigned to his fate. Finally, he delivers ‘Der Leiermann’ with a voice that’s all but devoid of emotion; there’s nothing left.
This is a memorable reading of Winterreise. Christopher Maltman’s singing is technically superb and his interpretation is full of insight and imagination. Yet again Graham Johnson proves to be the ideal partner in Schubert; this is a joint triumph.
I see that a live recording of Schwanengesang is on the way from these gifted artists. It can’t come too soon. If they’re on this sort of form then that will be another unmissable release for all devotees of lieder.
A memorable reading of Winterreise: an interpretation full of insight and imagination.