Festival Music

Michael Volle & Helmut Deutsch

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

I KNOW already that Thursday morning’s recital by German baritone Michael Volle is certain to be one of my treasured memories of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival.

That is entirely down to the performance of the first work in his programme, Frank Schubert’s Der Taucher (The Diver), less an example of German Lieder than an epic ballad setting, nearly half an hour long, the words of which are the product of a friendly competition between writer Friedrich Schiller and Goethe at the end of the 18th century.

The scale of the work is the obvious reason why opportunities to hear it are rare. Schubert worked on it for the better part of two years and created a huge monodrama with music tailored to every word, not just for the singer, but also for pianist Helmut Deutsch to conjure tension and drama, and character pictures as well as swirling seascapes. Delivered with huge expression by Volle, the baroitone’s vast vocal range introduced us to the King who sends the boy into the sea again and again in pursuit of enhanced rewards, and to his daughter, who becomes the ultimate prize. This was story-telling for grown-ups and utterly compelling. Leaving aside his huge voice - he has recently been New York Metropolitan Opera’s Wotan of choice in Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it was very easy to hear why - Volle is a natural communicator and if German publishers haven’t signed him up to do audiobooks of fantasy novels they’ve missed a trick.

If the Schubert was the highlight of the recital, the selection of Mahler songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Ruckert Lieder, and especially the more rarely performed Richard Strauss Opus 87 trio, were not exactly make-weight, however effortless he made them seem. So too with three short encores, which made the return journey from Strauss, through Mahler to Schubert.

Volle sang with the music on a stand throughout, and seemed to use it for all but his last encore, but it was difficult to tell how much it was a prop, although it was essential for all the verse of Der Taucher. And with all that opera in his head (Volle returns to the Met in April to be Scarpia in Tosca, opposite Anna Netrebko), perhaps making room to memorise Lieder is just a too much of a luxury.