Robin Tritschler, the Irish tenor who is a rising star of the Lieder world, contributes a note to the CD booklet explaining how this programme was designed. He was asked to prepare something for the Britten centenary in 2013, and decided to pair Britten in 1958 (the Hölderlin songs and the Irish folksongs), and Schubert in 1826. This provides the complementarity of Britten setting German and Schubert setting Shakespeare (albeit in translation). Schubert was one of Britten’s favourite composers, and he often gave recitals with Peter Pears that included Schubert songs. Tritschler also points out the contrasting fortunes in those years which those two great songwriters enjoyed; 1958 saw Britten near the peak of his international fame, but 1826 was a year of relative poverty and declining health for Schubert.
So the programme here is a satisfying one, and the live sound well-balanced with just the right acoustic for songs - just as we expect at this venue. The audience is silent, except at the end of each group, where their enthusiastic applause is retained. We even get the tenor announcing his brief encore — the third of Schubert’s 1826 Shakespeare settings. The playing time of less than forty-seven minutes is short measure, perhaps the result of its origins as a lunchtime recital. However, the disc is not expensive, there is as yet only a little of Robin Tritschler elsewhere on disc, and this varied live recital makes a fine showcase for his splendid talent.
Britten considered his Hölderlin songs amongst the best of his vocal works, but the cycle is rather neglected. Several of the settings are elusive on first hearing, and the work is performed and recorded less often than say Winter Words
or the Michelangelo Sonnets
. It was written for Pears and recorded by Britten and Pears in 1961 for Decca. More recently Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles recorded it for Hyperion
in 2004, and Susan Gritton and Iain Burnside for Signum
in 2008. This account from Tritschler and Burnside, live at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2014, is as fine as either of those.
The cycle opens here with ringing authority from the tenor and the pianist, a noble call to attention at the outset. Tritschler’s voice has a youthful freshness and highly attractive timbre, as well often thrilling head notes, which will be fondly recalled from his concerts and broadcasts when he was a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme. He can also use that instrument with intelligence and musical insight. In the lyrical second song he deploys his range of vocal colour to great effect, right up to the covered shading of the final low “Ruhe” (peace). The two-verse question and answer structure of ‘Sokrates und Alcibiades” is persuasively delivered, and the taxing chromatic line of the fifth song “Hälfte des Lebens” is done with precision and control. The slow final song has the gradual cumulative effect the composer intended.
Pears and Britten remain essential listening in this work, and no subsequent recording quite matches their obvious authority. One has to acknowledge that some listeners are simply allergic to Pears’ voice – a most regrettable affliction, for they are cut off from some of the greatest singing of the last century. For them, and for anyone who wants a fresh-sounding new interpretation, Tritschler joins Padmore as a worthy successor to the artist for whom the work was written. Burnside does not suffer from comparison with the playing of the composer - which is saying something since Gerald Moore regarded Britten as “the finest accompanist on the planet”.
The Schubert group, which contains several of his finest and most popular songs, is equally successful. We are reminded here, as in the Britten, that these are all songs for voice and piano
, requiring much more than is implied by that demeaning term ‘accompanist’. “Im Frühling” (“In Spring”) is, according to Graham Johnson, in his incomparable volumes on the complete Schubert songs, “for the piano … a set of variations, but vocally ... modified strophic form”. Hence there has to be a true musical partnership to do it justice, and that is what we get here. “Im Freien” (“In the Open”) is the longest song on the disc at nearly five minutes, and Johnson calls this “a piano impromptu of very special character”. Again we are grateful for Burnside’s contribution.
These songs are all very well trodden ground, and collectors of Schubert songs will have several favourites, many of them by the great singers of successive generations. That said, there is always something especially satisfying about a young tenor in this music of a man still in his twenties. Tritschler certainly does these famous works full justice, matching many a predecessor and bringing something of his own to each piece. Something he brings to all of them is excellent sung German. In another famous setting in the group, that icon of the German Romantic movement “Das Wanderer am den Mond” (The Wanderer to the Moon), he sounds, at least to these ears, like any of the native German speakers who have recorded the song in his relish of the text as much as of the notes.
The programme ends with a group of Irish folksongs, in the settings by Britten derived from Moore’s Irish Melodies. These are all charmingly sung, with obvious affection but also with as much vocal skill and attention to detail as the rest of the programme. In fact, there is still here the decorum of the recital hall, no hint of the tenor standing on a table in a crowded Dublin bar. The sentiment is there in the words and the notes, and the singer does not add anything extraneous or sentimental, which makes the songs more not less affecting. I know no recital disc on which these delightful songs are sung better than this. The contributions on the complete Britten folksong recordings (initially Collins Classics, now on Naxos
) from Felicity Lott and the effortful-sounding Philip Langridge are much le
ss persuasive. I have not heard the subsequent Hyperion complete Britten folksongs, but the 1993 Hyperion disc of Irish songs from Graham Johnson and the (Irish) mezzo Ann Murray has several delights, including “The Last Rose of Summer” in both Britten’s and Stevenson’s more conventional setting. If you played that song from each of these discs in that Dublin bar, it is the musically fastidious Tritschler who would have the topers – and the teetotallers – brushing away a tear.