The word 'accompanist' comes loaded with prejudice: the singer is the thing, with the shadowy figure at the keyboard merely expected to play the notes. Yes, of course it’s nonsense, but until Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau publicly proclaimed the brilliance of the great Gerald Moore, this was the prevalent view.
Yet pianists who accompany singers are chamber players in the full sense of the word, and nowhere more than with Schubert’s songs, in which the requisite keyboard artistry is every bit as demanding as the artistry required of the singer.
Some famous pianists just can’t do it, and the brand-leaders’ approaches are as various as those of their soloists. But it was entirely appropriate that the Wigmore Hall should honour the indefatigable Graham Johnson – the one-man powerhouse behind a remarkable flowering of accompanied performance and recording over the past four decades – by assembling a galaxy of stars to mark the publication of his magnum opus on Schubert.
And no accompanist could have made a better MC for this event, provocatively entitled ‘The British Schubert’. It was nice to learn that Schubert was an avid consumer of American adventure stories, and that The Last of the Mohicans was his bedside reading. I had forgotten – if I ever knew – the real origin of the ubiquitous ‘Ave Maria’, now conventionally sung in Latin and perennially associated with pop stars and Roman Catholic piety.
As Johnson reminded us, Schubert wrote it to be sung by the mythical Ellen Douglas in a rocky Highland eyrie as she lamented the plight of her outlawed father. Sir Walter Scott was a hero to the German Romantics – Mendelssohn made a point of visiting him on his trip to the Hebrides – and his The Lady of the Lake not only inspired Rossini’s opera of that name, it also inspired Schubert to compose a song-cycle which, as sung by Ailish Tynan, superbly evoked that mistily romantic world.
Johnson’s singers were led by Britain’s queen of dramatic mezzos Sarah Connolly, who brought a finely nuanced and wonderfully full-blooded sound to songs as varied as 15-year-old Schubert’s ‘Verklarung’ and his sinister ‘Old Scottish Ballad’ which she sang in a nightmarishly creepy duet with baritone Christopher Maltman. Baritone Benjamin Appl delivered ‘Trinklied’ in a suitably drunken manner, while tenor Robin Tritschler – very much a rising star - wrung the heart with ‘Der blinde Knabe’. Finally the stage filled with Johnson’s Guildhall students for a concerted farewell blast.