Over at the Albert Hall, the jollity and exhibitionism of the Last Night of the Proms; here at the Wigmore, a display of subtlety and true passion by the ‘Alpha Male’ of Lieder and his superb accompanist, both now at the absolute top of their game. This all-Heine recital was unusual in that it introduced many of us to the songs of Robert Franz (1815-1892) whose settings of many of the poems favoured by Schumann proved much more than mere curiosities.
It’s challenging to hear these well-loved poems set to any other music than that of Schumann, but once the difference is absorbed it’s easy to appreciate Franz’ less melancholy, more literal style. ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ opened the recital, in Franz’ hands a delicate reflection, the final ‘Sehnen und Verlangen’ having a matter-of-fact aura whereas Schumann’s final line suggests a world of heartbreak. Similarly, Franz’ ‘Die Rose, die Lilie’ is a charming compliment to the beloved, whereas Schumann’s is a headlong rush of breathless excitement at the joy of knowing that his beloved is everything to him. Considering the two settings is rather like comparing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How do I Love Thee with Shakespeare’s My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.
Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau performed these songs as though they were of the most exalted musical value, so that one was enabled to see their particular charms. At times, Franz takes the dramatic a little further than Schumann, as in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ and Boesch gave this full rein. In ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’ the dream narrative is notable for its directness, and the singing and playing for their subtlety; in the final line, ‘Und das Wort hab’ich vergessen’ there was no shrug of the shoulders (physically or verbally) at the final word, but a quite remarkable refining of the tone to the most slender of threads.
The Lizst group showcased a similar ability to scale down this mighty voice to extreme delicacy when required, most obviously in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ where the second stanza was sung in a kind of mesmerizing half voice, with the piano matching it in refinement. Boesch’s power was amply on display in the closing song of the recital’s first half, with a barnstorming performance of Schumann’s ‘Belsazar,’ the pivotal line ‘Ich bin der König von Babylon’ sufficiently thundering to shake the light fittings and the flower arrangements.
Schumann’s ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ was sung and played with swaggering confidence, yet conveyed the music’s sympathy for the sorrow of the young grenadiers. In complete contrast, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (from Myrten) was an object lesson in how to sing a line such as ‘So rein und schön und hold’ with tenderness yet not the slightest trace of mawkishness.
Liederkreis Op. 24 offered yet more evidence that Boesch is the foremost Schumann interpreter active today. ‘Ich wandelte unter den Baumen’ was sung with true lyrical grace, the crucial line ‘Das hübsche, goldene Wort’ tenderly caressed but not over-emphasized, and both here and in ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ Martineau’s playing was beautifully phrased. Boesch was once described as offering “Lieder with menaces” and there was something of that danger in his interpretation of ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffman,’ reminding us that to really know Schumann is not to dwell only on his melancholy and passion but also to acknowledge his capacity for genuine fury. You need power for this, and that is something Boesch has in abundance.
Both power and tenderness were shown in ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen,’ the former most strongly in ‘Hier sind nur die Lieder,’ which felt almost threatening at times, and the latter, of course, in a wonderfully phrased and enunciated ‘Du süsses Lieb in fernen Land.’ Two more examples of the art of the Lieder singer and the accompanist were given as encores, a breathtakingly pure ‘Hör’ Ich das Liedchen klingen’ and a very debonair ‘Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen.’ This was a highly successful opening to what promises to be a stellar season.