Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Christopher Maltman at the Austrian Embassy

A lovely recital by Christopher Maltman last night, with Graham Johnson at the keys. Maltman's voice is extremely beautiful, to be sure, but his first priority is really conveying the dramatic meaning of these pieces, and in that he succeeds quite brilliantly. Yes, he does that baritone lieder singer thing where his loud dynamics sometimes push into this coarse hollow place that gets overused and is grating. But I think maybe that's just my issue with the medium, since everyone (except Goerne, natch) does it.

The program was a really unexpected and surprising mix of, uh, settings of Goethe by 19th century Austro-German composers. But you know, parameters like that and you've got to pick some interesting stuff. So among the numerous Schubert selections we got a fascinating setting of an excerpt from Faust in which the singer shifts between Gretchen, the evil voice tempting her, and a chorus (how awesome would a Schubert composed one-man Faust opera be??? #fantasylieder); two mythological pieces, the beautiful "Ganymede" and the epic "Prometheus"; and the delightful "Der Fischer". In the sheer Schubertian beauty department, Maltman offered up both the "Wanderers Nachtlied(er?)", an incredibly restrained, haunting "Meeres Stille", "Wilkommen und Abschied" and more.

We also got the setting of "Erlkonig" by Carl Loewe (though they couldn't resist doing the Schubert as an encore), and Loewe's delightful setting of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", taken at an appropriately dazzling speed. The regular program closed with two completely beautiful knockouts: Brahms' "Dämmerung senkte sich von oben" and Loewe's "Lynceus der Türmer, auf Fausts Sternwarte singend".

Not that Goethe needs the shout-out, but it is remarkable to think about how a single artist provided 19th century romantics with inspiration for basically every aspect of their emotional/aesthetic imagination. Bleakest despair, check. High (but genuine) Romantic Schmaltz, check. Medieval fantasies, check. Magic and faeries, check. It's all in there.

But Maltman clearly thrives on this variation, and reminded the audience that done properly, interpreting these songs requires truly rarefied storytelling skills. I'm not great at extracting the details of accompanists' contributions to recitals but I will also note that Johnson's fine playing shone particularly in the wonderful piano writing in the Wolf selections.

Update: Link to Charles Downey's take in the Post...

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