Celebrated for his expressive and intelligent interpretations of baroque repertoire, countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has embarked on an unexpected project to perform Franz Schubert’s Lieder. He has strayed into nineteenth-century territory before with his recital partner, pianist Jérôme Ducros, exploring French song. His caressing tone has illuminated the sensual languorousness of the songs of Hahn in particular. How would he fare with Schubert’s tonal and emotional range, his poetic precision and intensity?
The recital opened in bright energetic style with ‘Im Frühling’, an ardent and youthful reflection on love and nature, with the usual Schubertian shadows and hints of emotional complexity. One soon became accustomed to hearing familiar Lieder in the countertenor register and those songs which inhabited an interior, sensual or spiritual realm responded best to Jaroussky’s delicate phrasing and gorgeous legato. The subdued narrative of ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’ was sustained to perfection at the end of each stanza, with an exquisite delayed turn. Jarrousky held the audience spellbound and Ducros’s contribution was equally powerful. ‘Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands’ Schiller’s perfect lyric, hovered in the air, the beauty of the ancient world embodied in the song; Jaroussky’s breath control seemed to give it eternal life. Just occasionally the more dynamic songs cause some tonal problems. ‘An die Musik’ has a declamatory style and the energy here seemed to produce a tinny edge to the voice, soon dispelled by two of the most effective songs of the evening: ‘Erster Verlust’ and ‘Du bist die Ruh’, both profound meditations on love lost and love fulfilled.
The songs were sensitively grouped thematically and in terms of contrast: dramatic pace alternating with introspection. The majority of the songs in Jaroussky’s programme are widely performed, but there were also a sprinkling of rarities including ‘Wiedersehn’, with its emphatically beautiful piano link between verses.
Ducros performed two solo pieces, the first the second-of-three Klavierstücke D946, with expansive and contrasting songlike themes, and in the second half the third Impromptu in G-flat from the D899 set. The final group of songs were outstanding: Romantic evocations of the end of the day. The lilting barcarolle of ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ ushered in the scene of a boat on a lake at sunset as a soul takes flight to transcend the limits of the earth. ‘Im Abendrot’ extended the metaphor and ‘Die Sterne’ lightened the whole atmosphere with its dancing melody describing twinkling stars. The final two songs ‘Abendstern’ and ‘Nachtstück’ meld poetry and music so completely they must rank amongst Schubert’s finest works, Jaroussky more than did them justice. The simplicity of ‘Abendstern’ played to his expressive gifts and ‘Nachtstuck’ displayed his theatrical and vocal versatility with its more complicated narrative. He floated spectral descriptions, expanded into devotional lyrics and committed to the final scene of Death’s moon lit visit. The audience were completely rapt and responded with shouts and whoops, only silenced by the encore "Ständchen", from Schwanengesang.