Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson at the Austrian Embassy
Baritone Christopher Maltman, a Vocal Arts Society regular, returned for another concert on Tuesday night at the Austrian Embassy. Unlike his last recital here -- exactly three years earlier, to the day -- he performed songs that were all in German and all set to poems by Goethe. The architect of this brilliant and expertly executed program, accompanying pianist Graham Johnson, also wrote the informative program notes.
These 20-some texts, taken from throughout Goethe's life and organized according to biographical period, were served up in musical versions -- and generally not the ones you might expect -- by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Loewe and, especially, Schubert. Some songs exploited the guileless and simple side of Maltman's voice, one step above dramatic recitation, as in Schubert's setting of the folk ballad "Heidenröslein." Others displayed his ability to differentiate many voices, as in the same composer's "Szene aus Faust," incarnating a malicious spirit, the terrified Gretchen, and a choir intoning the Latin sequence of the Requiem Mass.
Maltman could spin out a seamless legato, for the gorgeous twilight song "Anakreons Grab" by Hugo Wolf, or let loose with a hale and lusty squillo, for the thirsty minstrel in Schumann's "Ballade des Harfners." Some notes unraveled slightly at the top of his range, and the bass end became slightly woolly and shallow, but Maltman's precise diction and clear tone carried the sound beautifully through the room.
Johnson gave the embassy's increasingly clunky Bösendorfer the run of its life, playing the raging accompaniment of Wolf's "Was in der Schenke waren heute" with reckless abandon. Two encores offered comparisons with other composers' settings of Goethe poems heard earlier, Schumann's ethereal version of "Über allen Gipfeln" ("Nachtlied"), to go with Schubert's, and Schubert's famous "Erlkönig," to go with Loewe's.
-- Charles T. Downey