The Wigmore Hall is embarking on a major survey of Schubert’s complete songs, a big project entailing some 40 concerts over the next two years. The series opened with a fine recital by baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Graham Johnson, both exceptional communicators, on peak form.
They began at the beginning with Schubert’s first song, Lebenstraum, written when he was only 12, and setting a prolix text by one Gabriele von Baumberg about “the holy race of singers from times both old and new”. He left it unfinished – Boesch and Johnson performed it as a fragment – and it’s no masterpiece, though its opening piano chords have a bittersweet quality prophetic of much that followed.
Thereafter, the programme traced the outline of Schubert’s career in two big sequences of songs, some familiar, others not, beginning with Der Fischer of 1815 and closing with Das Lied im Grünen of 1827. In between came some little-known gems: five songs written in 1816 to texts by Johann Georg Jacobi that depict the progress of an affair from desire to disillusionment; and the difficult, depressive Der Sieg, with its contemplation of suicide.
Never one to rest on laurels, Boesch constantly strove for new subtleties of meaning and expression. For the Jacobi settings, he used a complex tonal palette that shifted from silk to steel as love turned sour. Both Der Tod und Das Mädchen and Auf der Donau involved thrilling descents into a cavernous bass register that I didn’t know he possessed. Totengräber’s Heimweh was an unnerving glimpse into the expressionistic world that late Schubert so disquietingly pre-empts. Johnson, as one might expect, brought a lifetime’s experience and understanding to bear on it all. A brilliant, unsparing evening, that bodes wonderfully well for what’s to come.