The Austrian bass-baritone Florian Boesch has been making quite a name for himself in recent years, and when it was announced that he would step in at very short notice at the Aldeburgh Festival for an indisposed Matthias Goerne there were muffled whoops of delight on the East Suffolk coast. Boesch made his first appearance at an Aldeburgh Festival in 2008, and memories are long in this part of the world. So his appearance was eagerly awaited and he stepped onstage to a very warm reception.
The (rearranged) first half of the programme was a fascinating, side by side presentation of Lieder by Schubert and by his direct contemporary Carl Loewe (1796 – 1869). Boesch has of course recorded an entire CD of songs by Loewe and seems to be absolutely in his element singing them: narrative ballads, with huge contrasts of light and shade, alternations between major and minor keys as verse succeeds verse and often a dramatic ending. Loewe’s setting of Erlkonig, very different to the more familiar Schubert setting, showed off Boesch’s vocal qualities right from the outset. He has a creamy, honeyed tone in the bass and lower baritone register, softening to a warm but much less incisive sound in the high part of the voice. It comes as no surprise to see that Boesch has studied with Robert Holl, whose dark, granite-like timbre is so distinctive in the concert hall and on CD. Boesch has many of the same qualities.
As delivered by Boesch, Loewe’s songs are to be acted out with the voice, with huge dynamic contrasts, while Schubert is (mostly) a case of beautiful legato singing. This was true in Der Kreuzzug and in An den Mond, for example. The Loewe collection came to a fitting climax (after Herr Oluf had shown the way) with a fabulously melodramatic ballad taken from the Scots by Herder: Edward. Here Boesch gave free rein to his ability to characterize with the voice, using falsetto, extreme pianissimo and then a bloodcurdlingly harsh, resonant register for the finale, the son’s curse upon his mother. Taken as a whole, the first half of the recital was an unusual and imaginative dip into some lesser-known nineteenth century Lieder.
The second half was more conventional, with three of Schumann’s songs from Gesange des Harfners and then with Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The Schumann was beautiful but perhaps a shade under-characterised, the Mahler a tour de force of expressive singing. With an accompanist as responsive and delicate as Justus Zeyen proved to be, it is possible for the singer to ignore Mahler’s tempo markings and to insert into his four deceptively simple sounding songs any amount of rubato and drawn-out emotion: but it is a dangerous thing to do unless one has absolute mastery of the breath control and expression needed for Mahler’s long, wistful, sighing melodic lines. Boesch came and went a bit – making fractional miscalculations as to the dynamic level of soft singing that would carry in the hall. But his dark, dramatic sound in Ich hab ein gluhend Messer was incredibly exciting and that song built to the climax it should as all the singer’s woes pour out in the tramping downward sweep of Ich wollt’, ich lag’ auf der schwarzen Bahr’…
The audience loved it. As well they might. For his one encore Boesch sang what he described as the only possible song to “follow that” – Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, in which Zeyen absolutely came into his own and produced the most stunning accompaniment of the evening. His melodic line was beautifully judged, his chording absolutely precise and his piano colour and dynamic so skillfully sustained that time stood still. Boesch sang with restraint, sustaining his own legato line and putting deeply felt expression into the Ruckert text, without totally convincing me that the song lies ideally well for his voice or that he was the bass-baritone born to sing it. Vocal artistry was there in abundance, but at times the effort showed. It was a lovely rendition, but I suspect that in ten years, Boesch will sing it better.
But taken overall, it was a terrific evening of Lieder, with Carl Loewe the discovery (I suspect) for many of the audience. And Boesch and Zeyen proved the old adage true: sometimes a last-minute stand-in can be as good as, if not better than, the advertised bill.
Photo: Lukas Beck