Christopher Maltman and Joseph Middleton, ‘The Soldier—from Severn to Somme’

At the Howard Assembly Room, a moving and intelligently compiled programme is given a beautiful—if slightly loud—performance.   

One of the chief delights of the classical song recital is that the comparatively short form of the Lied (song) allows for imaginative, thematic programming, and the present concert is in this regard exemplary. As baritone Christopher Maltman explained in his opening speech at the start of the concert—which was also most enjoyable, since Maltman is a fine speaker as well as singer, and, in my view, a programme is enhanced by a few charming words of introduction rather than being launched into without any contextualisation—the programme of songs on poems related chiefly to The Great War as well as certain 19th– and early 20th-century wars was first developed whilst he studied at conservatory. It then grew to a full programme in 2014 with the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War and now, with 2018’s Remembrance services concluding, and a recording completed, Maltman is retiring the programme. I think this a bit of a shame for something so well put together, and hope to see it revived at some time in the future.   

The programme divides into four roughly equal parts subtitled Home, Journey, Battle and Epitaph. Before proceeding to ‘Home’, Maltman gave a moving reading of Philip Larkin’s fantastic poem ‘1914’, causing me to reflect how peculiar it is that one of the finest poems on The Great War was written by a poet born in 1922—a testament to how deeply its consequences can be felt. Indeed, these ripples seem only to deepen with time, rather than become shallower, as the full magnitude of the events is still being revealed. The programme began with Butterworth’s gorgeous ‘Loveliest of Trees’, the first song in his cycle of A. E. Housman settings. Instantly impressive were the resonance, richness of tone, and expressiveness of Maltman’s voice—though I must add that, on the front row, the singer’s crescendi and forti were a bit hard on the eardrums! However, when I moved to the back of the hall for the second half, the volume was very comfortable, and the blend of piano with voice more beautiful than at the front of the hall, where the sound was much more raw.   

The first half of the programme then proceeded through beautiful English songs by Gurney, Somervell, and Butterworth—a highlight being Somervell’s wonderful ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, a song to which Schubert would not have been embarrassed to sign his name—and concluded with Mahler’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, showcasing for the first time Maltman’s beautiful pronunciation of the German folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (misprinted in the expensive programme as Das Knaben Wunderhorn). After the Mahler, Maltman and Middleton left the stage and briefly returned to offer the second part of the programme, centred around the theme ‘Journey’. Here Fauré and Ives were added to the list of composers, expanding the timeframe and the geographical view of the programme to something pan-European and American, as well as something concerned with the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century. The programme then returned to the lyrical English of Somervell, Gurney, and concluded once again with Mahler’s very humorous—but undeniably overlong—‘Revelge’. Maltman sang the refrain ‘Tralali, tralaley, tralalera’ with as much aplomb and meaning as can be brought to such things, and Middleton handled what sounded an unwieldy piano part with enormous skill—and apparent enjoyment, I might add.   

Here came the interval, and my chance to catch a nice spot upstairs at the back of the hall, where (as I say) the sound was more blended and balanced, where Maltman’s volume became part of an impressive performance rather than a distraction from it, and where the atmosphere of the room was much more remarkable, making for a perfect setting for the end of the programme. But before we got to the end, we had the third part, ‘Battle’, to hear. This section, like ‘Journey’, was generally very rollicking in character, and at times a little wearyingly so. However, a highlight of the concert came here in Maltman’s singing of Mussourgsky’s ‘Polkovodec’ in an impressive Russian.   

However, the highlight of the evening for this reviewer was undoubtedly the most reflective and lyrical part of the programme, ‘Epitaph’. This began with Finzi’s extraordinary ‘Channel Firing’—a wonderful setting of one of Thomas Hardy’s most powerful poems on human folly, to which Finzi brings a soundworld at once of darkness and pastoral beauty. This was followed by another lovely setting by Somervell of A. E. Housman, which largely plained on a single note—a daring piece of compositional simplicity. Penultimately, the programme gave us three more of Butterworth’s exquisite settings from A Shropshire Lad—the cycle which began the programme—before coming to a close on the beautiful ‘Lune d’Avril’ of Poulenc, which makes a simple and moving plea for a world without war.   

This intelligent programming was really heightened by an unfailingly expressive and powerful performance by Maltman and Middleton, full of subtlety, drama, and careful musicianship. They were warmly received by the audience and it was with great delight that they re-entered the stage for the encore—Middleton with a few words on Leeds Lieder (of which this even was a part), and Maltman with a few more words on the subject of war, and how moving it was to be retiring the present programme (and I can see why). The two brought the evening to a resplendent close with John Ireland’s ‘In Boyhood’.    

All in all, a fantastic, memorable, and powerful evening of song. I would like to thank the Howard Assembly Room for hosting it, and Leeds Lieder for yet another fantastic concert. I would also like to add a small note of thanks to the latter for inviting this humble reviewer to a small drinks reception after the concert.

Photograph by Pia Clodi, provided by Opera North.

Charles Eager

Charles writes on classical music and opera.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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