A Schubert Journey

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Published: 10th July, 2015


Over three consecutive evenings Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau took an increasingly large audience on a revelatory journey into Schubert’s soul. Although the decision to present the three song cycles separately resulted in recitals that were only a little over one hour each, such was the emotional intensity invested in these performances and the richness of Schubert’s music itself that it was the perfect arrangement.

In the intimacy of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, both singer and pianist exploited the hall’s warm and vibrant acoustic. From agonised outbursts of angry despair to hushed, drawn out phrases of meditation when time seemed to stand still, singer and pianist sought to uncover the emotional heart of Schubert’s three celebrated song cycles.

From the outset, it was clear that this recital was not going to be a safe run-of-the-mill experience. Most members of the audience would have been familiar with the popular Das Wandern from Die Schone Mullerin, which opened the recital, and had preconceived ideas of how it should go. Accustomed to hearing a baritone, or even Ian Bostridge’s tenor version, the sound of a bass-baritone in a lower key was a jolt. The piano became darker and murkier too. But after the initial shock, the way Malcolm Martineau had that mill-wheel rumbling along in jaunty accompaniment became something to savour. Liberties taken in varying tempi, dynamics and tone quality contributed to an interpretation that became increasingly compelling.

Physically, Boesch’s presentation did not conform to standard expectations either. In contrast with the previous recital held in this venue his ill-fitting suit was a far cry from the sartorial elegances of Ian Bostridge’s tails. The way he lounged against the piano, sometimes for almost whole songs was consistent with a more conversational approach to many of the musical phrases. The protagonist of the poems became an Everyman giving utterance to human experience. Whatever reservations one might have concerning Boesch’s style, his ability to immerse himself and the listener in the worlds of poems transfigured by Schubert’s genius was remarkable.

Martineau intensified the experience by being much more than the sympathetic accompanist. Although completely in accord with Boesch’s impulses, he added his own drama and gift for story-telling, sometimes running one song into another with violent changes of mood, at other times pausing so that the stillness of a moment could work its magic. With an ear for nuance and rhythmic elasticity he collaborated in realizing the whole gamut of imagery and emotion.

The listener could empathise with the physical restlessness of the wanderer or be rocked by the brook’s lullaby in Die Schone Mullerin; trudge through the snow or stand stock still gazing up at the up at the window of the cruel beloved in Die Winterreise, and toss off haunting farewells over the galloping rhythms of Abschied or be stricken by the a devastating encounter with a reflected image in Schwanengesang. It would be difficult to find a more gripping and intensely moving account of Der Doppelganger. The power of Heine’s poetry and Schubert’s music was also realized in a passionate account of Der Atlas, which followed it. Full of rage, “…and now you are wretched.” would have been a dreadfully somber note on which to end the second of these recitals. As the sole encore for the series, Schubert’s last song Der Taubenpost meant that the concert ended on a lighter note that still contained an underlying edge. It also had the appropriate status of being Schubert’s true “swan song”.

A change in the order of the recitals placed Die Winterreise as the final offering, an understandable choice given its place as the ultimate Lieder cycle. It has attracted male and female singers of all voice types and been given some highly controversial interpretations, not the least of which was Simon Keenlyside’s semi-danced version presented in 2004 for the Melbourne Festival. Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau gave a comparatively conservative rendition, full of changing moods that captured the drama of each piece. Fine-tuning his voice to the acoustic, Boesch used his splendid velvety tones to bring a more legato line to his singing at times while maintaining his more conversational style as he contemplated death in a riveting Der Leiermann. The standing ovation and explosion of applause that followed a hushed silence acknowledged three nights of Schubert’s wondrous music performed by gifted and insightful interpreters.

Adding to the sense of a festival occasion was a series of pre-concert illustrated lectures given by Songmakers Australia. An accomplished pianist and Schubert devotee, Andrea Katz gave illuminating talks about Schubert’s life and music within the context of the three programs. Joined by Nicholas Dinopoulos and Merlyn Quaife, she incorporated a number of musical illustrations in order to broaden the listener’s appreciation. Her second Schwanengesang lecture was particularly helpful as it included the encore for the corresponding recital as well as another contender for the position of Schubert’s final song, The Shepherd on the Rock. It was given a fine performance by Katz, Quaife and the always excellent David Thomas on clarinet.

Given the success of this mini-festival, Melbourne audiences can surely look forward to similarly enlightened programming by the Melbourne Recital Centre.