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Christopher Maltman Soldiers On

March 16, 2014

San Francisco Performances

Christopher MaltmanJust a paltry 195 people bought seats in Nourse Theater to hear one of the most thoughtful and provocative vocal recitals of the year, baritone Christopher Maltman’s “The Soldier — From Severn to Somme.” Accompanied by Joseph Middleton, Maltman presented an emotionally potent, full-moon’s evening of 22 songs that commemorated the centennial of the beginning of World War I.

Was it because there were two lieder recitals in San Francisco to choose from this past weekend that people stayed away? Certainly Natalie Dessay’s Saturday night event was far more glamorous, and held in a far more accommodating venue, than a program addressing a war that killed 17 million people and taking place in a cold, dimly lit hall. Only one thing is clear: Far too many music lovers missed a major recital of rarely heard repertoire, whose subject matter brought home the multifaceted nature of the war experience.

For the record, Maltman is a rightful member of a distinguished line of English baritones that includes, in the last 40 years alone, Benjamin Luxon, Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside, and, most recently, Roderick Williams. His career has been on the ascendant ever since he snared the lieder prize at the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Although he seldom appears in the Bay Area, he sings two leading roles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera this year alone, and is a familiar figure in opera houses in Salzburg, London, Berlin, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Paris, Frankfurt, Toulouse, and Zurich.

When he addressed the audience at the start of the recital, Maltman explained that his program had its roots in a shorter competition program he developed years ago. A “sort of metaphysical tapestry,” as he termed it, it’s divided into four sections — Home, Journey, Battle, and Epitaph — that trace a soldier’s journey from his peaceful home in England by the River Severn to the five-month battle near the River Somme that, in 1916, saw the death of over a million men.

If the program got off to a deceptively sweet start, with Maltman masterfully negotiating the risky high, soft, caressing entrance of George Butterworth’s song “Loveliest of Trees” with astounding security, it’s essential to note that the composer himself died in action at the Somme. Indeed, as Maltman noted later in the program, “The great irony is, for all the dehumanizing effects of the war, we are commemorating it with beautiful music and poetry.”

“The great irony is, for all the dehumanizing effects of the war, we are commemorating it with beautiful music and poetry.” –Maltman

Beauty followed beauty in an evening that included five of the 11 songs from Butterworth’s song cycle A Shropshire Lad. All are settings of death-tinged poems by A.E. Housman, and their appearance in the first and final sections of the evening helped to frame the recital. To his credit, Maltman resisted the temptation to wax sentimental, and never resorted to the obvious shake in the voice that would have destroyed the impact of lines such as “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.”

In truth, the only shake in Maltman’s exceptionally strong, superbly projected voice was a warble that surfaced occasionally, and intruded with decreasing frequency as the evening proceeded. It’s impossible to know whether this warning sign in a voice still relatively young — Maltman is but 44 — is due to the impressive extremes of volume that he produced throughout the evening. (No wonder they love him in that oversized barn known as the Met.) But what is certain is that the extremes Maltman easily achieved, which included a flawless diminuendo in the final verse of Gerald Finzi’s ominous Channel Firing, unbridled ebullience and a passable Yankee accent in Charles Ives’ gung-ho-for-war He Is There, an authoritative declamation for Modest Mussorgsky’s “Commander in Chief” (from Songs and Dances of Death), and an ideally empty-sounding yet lovely tone for the conclusion of Gabriel Fauré’s Les Berceaux (Cradles), are all the marks of an exceptional artist.

The extremes Maltman easily achieved … are all the marks of an exceptional artist.

Disappointingly, despite Middleton’s being labeled by both The Times and The Telegraph as the “cream” of young British accompanists, his playing never approached the impact and force of Maltman’s singing. The Steinway’s lid was open wide, and there was nothing, save for Maltman’s body, between the instrument and audience. Yet no matter how forcefully Middleton played, his sound remained subdued and undistinguished. Was the piano’s sound somehow sucked up into the multipurpose stage’s fly space in that repurposed theater (one of San Francisco Performances' temporary venues), while Maltman’s voice successfully projected out? This is a major puzzlement.

Regardless, Maltman never disappointed. Although he does not possess the chilling, black voice of doom that is ideal for Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, the lust he brought to Sir Arthur Somervel’s ironic drinking song Think No More, Lad, and the masculine soldier’s voice that distinguished Robert Schumann’s Die Beiden Grenadiere (The two grenadiers) and several other songs, was ideal. Equally moving was his ability to sweeten the voice at will.

It was hard to cheer, whoop, and holler after such a sobering, albeit beautiful, program. Generously acknowledging his extremely appreciative audience, Maltman returned with John Ireland’s In Boyhood, again to a text by Housman. It was a fitting conclusion to a program as powerful and vital as San Francisco Symphony’s recent performances of Britten’s War Requiem.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.