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A lifetime working with songs has taken Graham Johnson into corners of the music library untouched by anybody else. A few years ago he completed recordings of the entire Schubert songs and his interest now is focusing on those lesser composers who lived in the shadow of the master.
His programme of “Schubert’s contemporaries” on Wednesday went back to the trusted old format of the Songmakers’ Alamanac. Four singers – including Ann Murray, one of the founder members of the original group – presented a mixture of biographical readings and songs, which would work twice as well if the tone set by Johnson was not so sanctimonious. By the end of the evening the Wigmore Hall seemed to breathe the musty air of a Victorian Baptist chapel.
The reward comes from discovering the forgotten gems that Johnson has uncovered in the course of his extensive research. We know that the active social scene in 19th-century Vienna would have involved composers writing songs alongside each other, but it still comes as a shock to hear contemporaries of Schubert setting the very same poems and often with similar ideas about harmony or word-setting that were part of a common currency at the time.
Who would have thought that the long-forgotten Ludwig Berger could have imagined such a strangely suffocating, and deeply moving, setting of “Des Baches Lied”, better known to us today from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin? Or that Schubert’s young friend Franz Paul Lachner could almost equal the lyrical beauty of Schubert’s Schwanengesang in his own settings of “Ständchen” and “Das Fischermädchen”? Other worthy failures included Anselm Hüttenbrenner’s take on “Erlkönig” and Benedikt Randhartinger’s stormy setting of “Rastloses Wandern”.
They were all fortunate to have a sympathetic interpreter in the tenor Mark Padmore, who shouldered the bulk of the evening’s singing and a good proportion of the spoken texts. Ann Murray was the expert, and understated, singer of that Ludwig Berger setting, and soprano Claire Booth and baritone Roderick Williams, fine voices both, made up the willing and able quartet, with Johnson himself at the piano.
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