Superlative voice, brilliant technique and an excellent programme. This Wigmore Hall recital had it all.
In London it is possible to experience first rate concerts on a regular basis, but there are just a select few that are so outstanding that they deserve a category all of their own. If one does exist, this recital from Günther Groissböck and Malcolm Martineau would have to be placed within it, for it was not so much a case of there being nothing not to like as there being everything under the sun to embrace and enjoy.
Austrian bass Groissböck is well known in both Mainland Europe and America, where he has played Baron Ochs for the Metropolitan Opera, but is slightly less established on these shores. He has only twice appeared at the Royal Opera House, playing Fasolt in 2018 and Banquo last November, but on hearing his performances in those roles and at this recital one can only hope we have many more opportunities to experience his voice in the future.
As was demonstrated time and again across the evening, he has a beautifully rich and powerful bass, which is capable of bringing immense sensitivity to lines that are still asserted strongly, and is quite simply outstanding. It is also complemented by superlative technique in shaping and expressing sounds, and a confidence that means Groissböck knows he can deliver on whatever precise sound any part of any song ideally demands.
The final element that made the evening so special was the programming. It included famous songs by Musorgsky and Mahler, but the first half was dominated by, at the very least, less well known pieces. Many of them, such as those that possessed a military dimension, allowed for a degree of bombastic swagger, but there is nothing wrong with choosing works that enable the singer to show just how assertive their voice can be. Overall, songs encapsulating a wide range of styles and tones were still on offer with Groissböck executing all of them with equal skill.
The recital began with four songs from Schumann’s ‘miracle year’ of 1840. From the first of these, ‘Blondels Lied Op. 53’, Groissböck’s ability to bring a divine fullness to his sound in words such as ‘sagt’ came to the fore. Just occasionally, and in this first song alone, it felt as if an absolutely brilliant note was preceded by one that did not feel quite as strong, as if he was focusing too much on getting to the second of them. This was only noticeable though because it stood in such contrast to the rest of the evening, where the emphasis on each note, and all transitions between them, were perfect. Even in this first song, there were still many occasions when he provided quite different sounds on consecutive notes that captured exactly what was needed.
“…he has a beautifully rich and powerful bass”
Groissböck proved an extremely engaging performer all evening, and here he appeared almost to cradle the song with his arms, thus emphasising the depth of his feelings. ‘Die feindlichen Brüder Op. 49 No. 2’ was notable for the boldness of some phrases and the smoothness with which he moved through the swifter lines, while the intriguing ‘Belsazar Op. 57’ was made to contrast well with the more ostensibly rousing ‘Die beiden Grenadiere Op. 49 No. 1’.
The three songs from Hans Rott that followed were all to texts by Goethe, and also made for some excellent contrasts as the ballad-like ‘Der Sänger’ contrasted with the solemnity of ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’. ‘Geistergruss’ stood out, however, for the way in which Groissböck let the basic brilliance of his bass come to the fore, with the fact there was such little need to ‘embellish’ this in any way actually making the end product feel more eerie and effective. Bruckner is not well known for his songs and wrote none in his Vienna years (1868-96), but the three performed here from the 1860s really gave Groissböck the opportunity to shine by possessing a variety of textures that he proved highly adept at bringing out. He could bring such different sounds to the individual words that mean ‘dark’, ‘soft’ and ‘gentle’ in the phrase ‘So dunkel, mild und weich’ in ‘Im April’, while the end of ‘Mein Herz und deine Stimme’ provided a master class in how to deliver a line with the utmost delicacy while asserting it with considerable power.
Wolf’s Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo rounded off the first half of the concert in superb fashion, while the second had quite a different feel. It featured just two composers, and in Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death and five songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn it really felt as if Groissböck was totally into stride and giving it his all, with absolutely thrilling results. The encore, Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’, then capped a superlative evening.
Malcolm Martineau, one of the preeminent accompanists today in this type of repertoire, was equally excellent as he tackled the wide range of demands that these songs placed upon him. Very often our attention was drawn to just how much he was responsible for making them feel complete. For example, some end with a few quiet and spaced notes after the singer has finished, and yet the songs would not have shone as brightly as they did had he not shown as much attention to detail in this seemingly simple act of ‘rounding off’ as in everything else that he did.
This was one of the best recitals I have ever attended and the only sad thing is that there were not more people present to witness it. It is, however, impossible to keep a performance such as this quiet for long, so we can certainly hope that word gets out and that the next time Groissböck appears at the Wigmore it will be to a rightfully packed hall.
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