28 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten & Franz Schubert – LIEDER (Robin Tritschler, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071)

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten & Franz Schubert - LIEDER (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op. 61 and Folksong Settings and FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): LiederRobin Tritschler, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano [Recorded ‘live’ at Wigmore Hall, London, UK, on 11 January 2014; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071; 1 CD, 46:48; Available from Wigmore Hall, Amazon, iTunes (UK), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Even amidst the tradition-smashing endeavors of young musicians in Twenty-First-Century Classical Music, there are few things more enjoyable and rewarding than a successful recital or recording of Art Songs. Very sadly, the qualities that define such an undertaking—Art and Song—are too often missing from such undertakings. Almost anyone with a decent grasp of pitch and the ability to read words and music can perform a Schubert Lied on the most basic level, but only an artist with a direct connection to the Grand Tradition of Lieder singing can conjure a world into which an audience is lured for a song’s duration. In the midday recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11 January 2014, Irish tenor Robin Tritschler proved a recitalist whose marvelously beautiful voice is but one of many notable qualities that he brings to his performances of Art Song. The programme of songs by Benjamin Britten and Franz Schubert selected for this recital provided ideal territory for the singer’s dauntless excursion into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche. The performances on this disc, preserved in clear, ideally-balanced sound that betrays no indications of having been recorded in live performance aside from well-deserved applause, are perfectly-judged journeys in which the crystalline pulchritude of the vocalism bathes the psychological depths of the music in revealing light. Though many performances offer fleeting moments of musical and interpretive efficacy, few Lieder recitals genuinely merit being preserved for posterity. Robin Tritschler’s 2014 Wigmore Hall recital earned that distinction, and this disc earns a place among the most cherished Lieder recordings of great tenors past and present.

No matter the repertory, the presence of Iain Burnside at the keyboard endures musicality of the first order and the facilitation of a nurturing, genuinely collaborative environment for the singer. Inexplicably, the term accompanist has taken on a derogatory connotation, but Mr. Burnside epitomizes the deepest essence of the concept of accompaniment. Without question, there are pianists who merely play notes, but Mr. Burnside’s playing transcends even his confidently virtuosic executions of music of finger-numbing difficulty. He understands and conveys to the listener that accompanist is a designation that is won, not given solely because the pianist shares the stage with a singer. No, he must accompany the singer musically, emotionally, intellectually, and dramatically; accompany in the sense of being a participant rather than an observer. This Mr. Burnside achieves in every passage in which he partners Mr. Tritschler. Both as pianist and as collaborative artist, the immediacy of his playing of Britten’s and Schubert’s songs is exquisite.

Composed during the summer of 1958, the Opus 61 Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente—settings of verses by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843)—followed cycles in French (Les Illuminations, Opus 18, with texts by Rimbaud) and Italian (Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Opus 22) and constitute Britten’s only song cycle in German. Introduced to Hölderlin’s poetry by Louis, Prince of Hesse and by Rhine, to whom he dedicated the Fragmente, Britten found in these texts sentiments that surely resonated with him and his partner, Sir Peter Pears, for whose voice the songs were crafted. Hölderlin’s simple, stark imagery and emotional desolation instigate contemplation of love and loss, themes that surely remained in Britten’s and Pears’s minds during the gestational period of the Hölderlin settings, only months after the untimely death of their friend and esteemed colleague, horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. It is no exaggeration to state that Mr. Tritschler rivals Mark Padmore as the finest interpreter of the Hölderlins yet recorded. He uses text at least as thoughtfully as Sir Peter Pears but with none of that gentleman’s mannerisms, and the voice is considerably more conventionally attractive. His singing of ‘Menschenbeifall’ alternates exultation with unease, his phrasing of the lines ‘Ach! der Menge gefällt, was auf den Marketplatz taugt, / Und es ehret der Knecht nur den Gewaltsamen’—‘Ah! the mob fancies what is on offer in the marketplace, / And the servile cherish none but the violent’—exhibiting an apt suggestion of frustration. Voicing Britten’s lines with impeccable rhythmic precision, Mr. Tritschler subtly contrasts the bleak disappointment of ‘Die Heimat’ with the irony of ‘Sokrates und Alcibiades,’ the latter song’s latent homoeroticism neither emphasized nor evaded. The closing line of ‘Die Jugend,’ ‘Im Arme der Götter wuchs ich groß’ (‘I grew up in the arms of gods’), receives from Mr. Tritschler and Mr. Burnside luminescent treatment. The impersonal influence of nature is keenly felt in their muted performance of ‘Hälfte des Lebens.’ Not even Pears brought as much quiet understanding to the opening lines of ‘Die Linien des Lebens,’ ‘Die Linien des Lebens sind verschieden, / Wie Wege sind, und wie der Berge Grenzen’ (‘The lines of lie are manifold, / As paths are, and the mountains’ borders’) as Mr. Tritschler reveals: certainly no other voice has sung the number more elegantly.

Britten’s folksong arrangements are some of his greatest gifts both to singers and to music itself. There has ever been a stupid tendency among ‘serious’ musicians to regard folksongs with bemused contempt despite the legions of masterworks in the core repertory that are inspired by—or directly quote from—folk tunes and the advocacy of esteemed composers like Britten, Dvořák, and Percy Grainger. These performances by Mr. Tritschler and Mr. Burnside course with uncomplicated feeling and gentle melancholy. Their serene traversal of ‘Oft in the stilly night’ is complemented by the exuberant charm of their account of ‘The Minstrel Boy.’ Mr. Tritschler’s voice shimmers like midwinter moonlight in ‘At the mid hour of night,’ and no two adjectives could better describe the quality of his singing than those that begin ‘Rich and rare were the gems she wore.’ Mr. Tritschler’s singing of ‘The last rose of summer’ is one of the most perfectly beautiful things one might ever hope to hear: projecting tones so that they spin hypnotically into the listener’s ear, he transforms this piece into a deeply moving paean for the little tragedies of everyday life.

The Lieder of Franz Schubert need neither introduction nor explanation. The famously introverted composer found in the Lied a medium through which emotions too personal for speech could be communicated in ways not only meaningful but universal. In this recital, Mr. Tritschler evinces profound connection with both music and text, his mercurial vocalism shaped by the effervescent nuances of the words. Opening his Schubert selections with Father Reinhard van Hoorickx’s 1959 arrangement from ‘Die Blume und der Quell,’ ‘O Quell, was strömst du rasch und wild’ (D874), the tenor’s singing and the pianist’s playing raptly evoke the sharply-drawn images of nature. Mr. Tritschler’s phrasing of ‘Im Frühling’ (D882) seems borrowed from the very essence of eternal renewal, and the almost childlike wonder of his account of ‘Im Freien’ (D880) is uniquely inviting. A gnawing sadness pervades this performance of ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ (D870), the song’s introspection finding an insightful outlet in Mr. Tritschler’s silver-hued singing. The spiritual breadth that he manages to convey without ever distorting a rhythm or sacrificing the poise of his vocal placement is uncanny. The yearning that he highlights among the sentiments of ‘Ständchen’ (D889) and ‘An Silvia’ (D891), respectively drawn from Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Two Gentlemen of Verora, is bizarrely ambivalent, in his delicate handling both unsettling and comforting. This gets at the heart of Schubert’s genius: individual tribulations are reflected in universal pain, and the singular eloquence of Schubert’s explication of this duality is both saddening and liberating. The artistic union of Schubert and Shakespeare is also the source of Mr. Tritschler’s encore. The narrative voice of his singing of ‘Trinklied’ (D888), its text adapted from Antony and Cleopatra, is more poet than publican, but it is difficult to imagine any listener not wanting to share a pint with such an enthralling musical storyteller.

It is easy to make the mistake in an Art Song recital of regarding the music as a holy relic that the audience can revere from afar but never approach, much less handle. Likewise, too many singers seemingly perceive Lieder as a sort of archaic language that must be translated into a less-intimidating vernacular for Twenty-First-Century listeners. In truth, song is in every heart. Robin Tritschler’s voice, Iain Burnside’s hands, and the music of Benjamin Britten and Franz Schubert are vessels in which our hearts’ songs are distilled. In this Wigmore Hall recital, singer and pianist lift the soul countless times in the course of forty-six minutes. There is no shortage of new Lieder recordings even in today’s erratic Classical Music industry, but this disc is something very special.