Classical review: Roman Trekel's Wigmore recital is both riveting and perverse

Roman Trekel, Malcolm Martineau

Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” is a fragile bloom compared with the mighty Schubert song-cycles by which Schumann had been inspired, but that apparent fragility cloaks a powerful hallucinatory drive.

Drawing on poems by Heinrich Heine, Schumann fixed on a selection which allowed him to chart the tremulous ups and downs of his not-yet-consummated passion for his bride-to-be Clara Wieck, and, although the cycle has a story of sorts, it concerns events which take place strictly in his mind. Poem after poem starts brightly but resolves into a misery which seems pathological rather than a reflection of reality: the gigantic coffin in which the poet consigns his woes to the ocean seems to be a symbolic act of self-healing, with the piano’s closing comment suggesting that all will eventually turn out fine.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it, but it’s not Roman Trekel’s: he sings the last verse with the hopelessness of a condemned man, beyond all help from the piano’s sweet balm. But everything about this German baritone’s recital seemed carefully calculated, including his stage presence: with his shaven head and exquisitely-cut coat he looked like a cross between a tailor’s dummy and a figure from an Expressionist drama. And his voice took some getting used to: the sound was oddly reined-in, with the mouth only opening a crack, yet he had volume in spades.

And with Malcolm Martineau’s pliant accompaniment he turned this recital into a riveting event, with the see-sawing emotions of Schumann’s protagonist dramatised to the hilt. Each effect was intensely vivid, from the hurrying eagerness of “Rose, lily, dove” and the mystery of “I bear no grudge” to the spookiness of “I wept in my dream”, in which his a cappella sound seemed to be constantly dying away to nothing.

The recital’s concept was the changing face of love as shown through Lieder, though since the Schoenberg and Zemlinsky songs which Trekel had chosen were setting of texts by the provocative Richard Dehmel, sex was more the word. Schoenberg’s Jesus lusted palpitatingly after Mary Magdalen, while Zemlinsky’s songs were hymns to sensual satisfaction.

But by including Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” Trekel finally overreached himself. Written for soprano and orchestra as a last love-letter from the composer to his singer wife, these songs should soar ecstatically, and the suggestiveness of their orchestral textures is quintessentially feminine. Trekel simply boomed his way through, while the piano transcription (by whom?) just sounded like a piano.