Over in Kensington, the Last Night of the Proms was in full swing, with all its expected dramas; those who prefer a quiet life tend to opt for the First Night at the Wigmore Hall, but this year that less showy venue had a drama all its own when Gerald Finley, who had been scheduled to open the hall’s new season, was rushed to hospital with appendicitis. Nothing daunted, the Wigmore expressed its best wishes to the stricken bass-baritone whilst arranging for a replacement in the shape of the tenor Robin Tritschler, who turned in a performance not merely ‘very good in the circumstances’ but one which would grace the hall at any time.
The programme was delectable – in fact, some audience members preferred it to the originally planned one – beginning with a judiciously chosen Schubert set of songs based around evening reflections. ‘Die Sterne’ (Leitner) set the tone with plaintive singing and musical phrasing of the lines, echoed by Julius Drake’s poetic playing. The transition from quiet, pensive rumination at the beginning, to forthright emotion at the end, was finely managed by both singer and pianist. ‘Alinde’ is not so frequently performed, possibly because its gently rocking accompaniment and mesmerizing vocal line can tend towards monotony, but Tritschler avoided that with evocative word pointing, and Drake’s playing never strayed into dullness. ‘Ständchen’ is such a popular song that it can feel hackneyed, but here we were reminded of its perfection, especially in the fervour of ‘Liebchen, komm’ zu mir!’ and the finely judged vocal colour at ‘Silbertönen.’
Schumann’s Liederkreis is perhaps a work in progress for this singer; he was at his best in the more lyrical, reflective songs such as ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ and ‘Berg’ und Burgen schau’n herunter’ but the more tempestuous ones needed a bit more fire. He rose to the challenges of the final song, taking the difficult line ‘Du süsses Lieb im fernen Land’ with an easy grace which did not lack the requisite ardour. Schumann’s wonderful piano part found Drake in his best form, the nachspiel a model of tenderness.
Ravel’s Céinq melodies populaires grecques gave the opportunity for a display of insouciant charm as well as very polished diction, but it was predictably Britten’s Winter Words which showed Robin Tritschler at his best, since this is music which particularly suits his voice, recalling the great English tenors of past years in its lyrical grace tempered with a slight astringency in the tone. ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ was beautifully done, the accompaniment ideally anxious and the singing finely evoking Hardy’s sense of wonder and alienation, both so brilliantly depicted in Britten’s music. ‘The choirmaster’s burial’ is considered by many to be one of the greatest songs in the repertoire, and both performers gave it all they had, lovingly delineating both the wondrous poetry of the choirmaster’s request and the boorish attitude of the vicar.
Julius Drake had had to learn a new programme in 24 hours, although it must be said that this was all very familiar music which he has played hundreds of times; the singer rightly thanked him effusively at the end, Drake’s ever-supportive playing acknowledged as ensuring the success of this very short-notice recital. A little understandable nervousness on both sides notwithstanding, this was a very fine beginning for the hall’s 2017-18 season.
Further details of Wigmore Hall’s season can be found here: wigmore-hall.org.uk/whats-on/calendar