After the previous evening’s virtually unrelenting gloom, this recital of Beethoven and Schubert made for a pleasing change in that you didn’t feel like throwing yourself off the nearest bridge upon exiting the Wigmore. Beethoven called An die ferne Geliebte a ‘Liederkreis’ (circle of songs) and it is often referred to as the first song cycle – it certainly has a better claim to being called a ‘cycle’ than Schwanengesang, the songs of which Schubert never saw as a unified whole. With their similar experiences of unrequited love, longing and separation the two works are ideally matched, especially when presented with such an emphasis on the unattainable as they were here.
John Mark Ainsley and Malcolm Martineau clearly see Beethoven’s work as a no-holds barred expression of raw emotion, rightly taking their cue from the composer’s letters expressing his feelings for an “immortal beloved.” The temptation to croon the gentle melody of ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’ was rejected in favour of an unusually slow yet dramatically urgent performance, and although ‘Leichte Segler’ had the requisite lilt, the focus was firmly on the ironic contrast between the wafting clouds and winds, and the tears of the lover. Now and again Ainsley made rather free with both words and music, but not to such an extent that the freedom became a distraction.
Martineau’s playing of the rippling phrases of ‘Es kehret der Maien’ introduced and supported a blessedly un –twee performance of this most potentially cringe-inducing song, with the emphasis on the poet’s inability to gain anything from springtime but yet more tears. Beethoven’s reverent, canon-like setting of the final part of the cycle, in which he hopes to reach the beloved by his gift of the songs, was given the requisite solemn expansiveness shading into a final heroic assertion.
Schwanengesang was unusually programmed, with the Heine settings following directly after the Beethoven, and the Rellstab making up the recital’s second half. In some ways, this made perfect sense, given that the Heine are so much more full of despair, but it did lead to a slight sense of anti-climax. The Heine settings here formed a mini-cycle of their own, with the narrative progressing from the dangerous charm of the speaker in ‘Das Fischermädchen’ through the desolation of the lover in ‘Die Stadt’ and finally to the absolute suffering of ‘Der Atlas.’ Unsurprisingly, Ainsley’s singing is at its most beautiful, and his interpretation at its most effective, in phrases of lyrical beauty rather than powerful drama, but he’s no slouch when it comes to the more brutal moments, as he showed in a strongly characterized ‘Der Doppelgänger,’ with Martineau’s febrile, edgy fingering blending with the voice to bring out the music’s foreboding.
‘Ihr Bild’ is really the song which tests not only a singer’s technique but his powers of interpretation – and it’s not exactly an easy ride for the pianist, either, as deceptively simple as those bleak phrases may sound. Both got it exactly right here – ‘Heimlich’ uttered without preciousness, the final despairing line wrenching without hand-wringing, and the piano the equal of the voice in its plaintive appeal.
The Rellstab settings were sung and played with charm and without any of the archness so often heard from those who feel that Schubert simply must be done ‘delightfully’ rather than truthfully, and ‘Ständchen’ was typical of Ainsley’s approach in that it was poetic without over-stressing single words, and tender without mawkishness. Die Taubenpost was given as an encore, sung and played with the kind of unforced candour which we expect of this lieder partnership.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.