Extraordinary chemistry at work in Boesch and Martineau’s compelling double act.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
June 28, 2015

We embark on a journey and we don’t really know where it will take us. It’s not that we have a clear plan. I really don’t know what the emotional journey is going to be, and I don’t want to know.

This is how Austrian baritone and lieder specialist Florian Boesch describes the special magic of his partnership with Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau who have been touring Australia performing Schubert’s three great song cycles.

“Working with Malcolm is the greatest privilege I can imagine. In him different qualities come together which are all crucial. He is unbelievably brilliant as a pianist – he can play what he feels.

“There is no interpretation between his emotional experience and what he plays – he plays in real time,” the singer says.

There is no doubt that there is an extraordinary chemistry at work here. Both are great musicians prepared to take risks. They relish daring Thelonius Monk-like changes of tempo, significant pauses and pushing the poetic line to its limits, but always with taste and a reverence for their material.

This all makes for edge-of-the-seat stuff in live performance as both these Sunday recitals in the Utzon Series at Sydney Opera House showed.

The first, Die schöne Müllerin, was appropriately set against a sunny harbour backdrop, not exactly Schubert’s beloved brook but close enough for what is the lightest of the three cycles.

There are many who feel this set of Wilhelm Müller poems with their youthful passion – alas finally turning to rejection and despair – are best suited to the tenor voice. But Boesch, with his mastery of the poetic line and its emotional and dramatic intent, presents a convincing case for the baritone.

Although he rejects the notion that he is “acting” when he sings these lieder it’s difficult to ignore the fact that he enters each successive micro drama body and soul. Not only is he blessed with a beautiful and flexible voice where operatic power is matched by dying softness, but also his face assumes an astonishing array of expressions, as does that of his accompanist.

And it’s obvious that they are having a bloody good time. This is why their recitals and recordings are so sought after.

However their interpretations are not without controversy. For example, Boesch is adamant that the wanderer who gets a job at the mill and falls in love with the miller maid, only to be jilted for a hunter, does not drown himself in the brook.

“Good night, good night,/until everything wakes/sleep away your joy/sleep away your pain” is in internal torment, he argues.

You may or may not agree. Just as several eyebrows were raised when for their recent Schwanengesang album Boesch changed the order so the poems by Ludwig Rellstab (seven songs) and Heinrich Heine (six) are in two distinct sets, reordered to give them a narrative flow.

Unlike Müllerin and Winterreise, both by the same poet and both with a narrative thread, Schwanengesang is not strictly a song cycle anyway, consisting of 14 settings of works by three poets published posthumously to cash in on the popularity of the other cycles.

So does it really matter that Der Atlas, instead of being the first was the last of the Heine set, while the Rellstab collection ends thunderously ominous Kriegers Ahnung (Soldier’s Foreboding) instead of Abschied (Farewell)?

To this listener the answer is “no”. What does matter is that both artists managed to convey Schubert’s panoramic sweep of emotions and glorious musical imagination and invention in a sustained and spellbinding way throughout these two very different recitals.

The audience were given so many vocal and pianistic highlights. In the first recital you could feel the millstones turning in Martineau’s bass notes of Das Wandern (Wandering) and Boesch’s inflectional switches from tentative to emphatic to insecurely wistful in Der Neugierige (The Questioner). You felt the sense of loss in Trockne Blumen (Withered Flowers). 

For the Swan Song recital we got the post-coital mini-drama of Am Meer where the woman’s tears “poison” the seducer; the ferocious two-line ending of Die Stadt (The Town) where the sun marks the spot where Heine’s hero lost his beloved, and the hair-raising climax of Der Doppelgänger (The Ghostly Double) with its eerie fade in the final line.

As a bonus the duo encored with Johann Gabriel Seidl’s Die Taubenpost (The Courier Pigeon), Schubert’s last song which they ditched on the album in favour of some Goethe settings. This charming lied, with its catchy, dancy riff in the piano part, provided a refreshing sorbet after the heavy fare.

But more than all of this we got to see arguably the most compelling and electrifying double act on today’s lieder circuit.

Tickets for the June 29 performance are still available. Click here to bool online

Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.