Festival Music

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

As in other spheres of human existence, there are few certainties in performances of chamber music, but a ticket for Austrian baritone Florian Boesch singing Schubert’s song-cycle Winterriese with Malcolm Martineau at the piano is a pretty safe bet.

Reputation and repertoire guaranteed a very well-filled Queen’s Hall on Friday, and those have not been as common a sight as in other years.

It would also have been no stretch to predict the absence of an encore at the end of an hour and a quarter and the 24 songs.

There is nothing that would have been appropriate to follow what was a masterclass in the delivery of art song – and what many would regard as the pinnacle of art song at that, the most perfect cycle from the pen of the finest composer.

Boesch has this Winter Journey in his bones, the ebb and flow – but ultimately downward spiral – of emotions expressed in Wilhelm Muller’s poetry and given such eloquent expression in Schubert’s music.

It is a dark tale of a young lover ejected from his sweetheart’s home by her family, and his wanderings in state of desolation until he stands listening to a busker as impoverished as himself.

Some of the songs are very brief, others, like The Linden Tree, Dream of Spring and The Signpost, work as stand-alones and as way-markers through the cycle.

That is helpful to the fresh listener, but academic for Boesch and Martineau, the most attentive of accompanists, so sensitive to small gradations in phrasing and pace.

This was a partnership of musicians at the peak of their game, sometimes moving immediately to the next chapter of the story, sometimes pausing to shift gear.

The first word of Winterreise may be “Stranger”, but Boesch delivered the scene-setting opening song, Gute Nacht, as an old acquaintance relating a sad tale, until the softly sung high note at the start of verse four hinted at the torment to come.

There was raw anger at The Weathervane in song two, and then the anguish of Numbness (Erstarrung, song four). In Flood (Wasserflut) he seemed to be dragging the recollection from a very dark place indeed, and the “seething torrent” of Auf dem Flusse (On the River) really did seeth.

The baritone maintained that level of intensity across the whole arc of the work, employing his remarkable range to maximum effect, often sotto voce on the highest notes and never quite unleashing the full power of his voice in the intimate space.

The cycle might have ended at least twice before the narrator’s encounter with The Hurdy-Gurdy Player, and one of the most memorable partnerships between piano and voice in all music.

Boesch left the lyric’s last question hanging poignantly in the air.