THE ‘SPELL’ OF FLORIAN BOESCH
Florian Boesch, baritone; Roger Vignoles, piano; Schumann and Schubert Songs - Chan Centre, February 19, 2012.
Austrian baritone Florian Boesch has quickly become one of the most exciting lieder (art song) singers before us. As so often happens, his ascending star was likely put in place by two concerts where he stepped in at short notice for, respectively, Thomas Quasthoff and Robert Holl -- with brilliant results in the core of German romantic song. His immediate success is not difficult to understand. The singer has a wonderfully-natural empathy with composers such as Schubert and Schumann and probes their texts with fluency, imagination and emotional awareness. With his clean tone and flexible articulation, he seems to aim to make each song totally involving and his own. This concert featured the above composers in Heinrich Heine settings of consuming sadness and grief (see his CD on Onyx). He could have had no better partner for this journey than the distinguished veteran accompanist, Roger Vignoles.
In Schumann’s celebrated Liederkreis, I was immediately impressed with Florian Boesch as a story teller, always gravitating to a reflective posture, but being able to open out, or pare down, his voice to capture the many subtle shades of the cycle’s sadness. His ability to negotiate the tensions of this 9-song collection was quite masterly. He certainly began with composure and exact articulation but, song by song, increasingly drew on greater and more varied vocal resources to strengthen the intensity of the (often distressed) feeling. Even by the third and fourth songs, and especially ‘Lieb’ Liebchen, leg’s Handchen’, we had a clear indication of the tenderness of his phrasing and his ability to absorb himself in a deeply-felt melancholy. ‘Schone Wiege meiner Leiden’ captured a lovely contrast between strong defiance and tender reflection while the ‘wild boatman’ song allowed him to open out excitingly to his full power and weight. The last song,’Mit Myrten und Rosen, lieblich und hold’ may not have the distinction of the others but it was remarkable how all the singer’s previous expression was put together here. There was a quiet poignancy and fragility, yet also a heroic, decisive side – and always an intensity of utterance that allowed the completion of the story in the most vivid vocal terms.
The additional Heine settings by Schumann seemed to carry this momentum forward. We saw an unusual streak of meanness and defiance in ‘Die beiden Grenadiers’; in ‘Abends am Strand’, pristine articulation with sustained emotional weight, while ‘Belsazar’ had a commanding integration and strength. Throughout, there were so many beautifully-delivered long lines, and how more perfectly could a singer convey the descending phrases in ‘Dein Angesicht’ Sometimes, the sadness seemed so consuming that words could hardly be sung, or even spoken. But there was not a trace of affectation here; one just noted how well the feeling was conveyed and how exactly the accompanist matched the singer’s dynamics.
For all this, we perhaps came under the ‘spell’ of Florian Boesch most completely in the final Schubert selections from Schwanengesang. After a charming, narrative exposition of the opening ‘Fischermadchen’, the singer quickly moved to a very quiet, disembodied tone at the end of the first stanza of ‘Am Meer’ (We sat mute and alone), and intensity grew. The audience became quiet in a way I have seldom heard, likewise suspended and disembodied. Just how superbly judged was the ‘awakening’ in ‘Ihr Bild’, and just how complete was the involvement in the haunting ‘Der Doppelganger’, contrasting a feeling of removed otherworldliness with outright torment and protestation. A most gripping experience!
I had remarked that Simon Keenlyside’s vocal recital four months ago (Korea Daily, 11-11-26) was one of the best we had seen for years, but there is no doubt that this performance was at least its equal. While both artists are masters at conveying textual meaning and emotional feeling, I can only say that there seems to be something in the singing of Florian Boesch that is uniquely riveting, individual and rare.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012