Last night at Walter Hall, as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Chris Maltman and Graham Johnson gave a recital that explored the experience of war through song. It was a long and varied programme with twenty two songs in four languages commemorating most of the great empires that went to war in 1914 though many of the songs were from earlier periods. At the core of the programme were early 20th century settings of English pastoral poems. Butterworth’s settings of Houseman were there but, sneakily, we got Somervell’s much less well known setting of Think no more lad. In a similar vein there were Gurney and Finzi. The Americas were represented in a characteristically rambunctious Ives setting of a horribly jingoistic McCrae poem; He is there. McCrae may be the only well known war poet who managed to survive until 1918 without developing any sense of irony. Beyond the English speaking world there were songs by Mussorgsky, Mahler, Fauré, Schumann, Wolf and Poulenc.
Maltman is an interesting performer. He’s clearly very concerned with text and story telling. His phrasing is immaculate but if forced to choose between emphasising the text or sheer beauty of line and tone he’ll go for the former. It’s especially apparent in pieces like the Shropshire Lad songs. I’ve practically slept with Tom Allen’s recording of those for twenty years and I love them dearly but I also enjoyed Maltman’s more pointed, less elegiac reading. It’s an approach that would probably work well with early Weill or similar cabaret like fare. Graham Johnson at the piano was brilliant. Many of the piano parts, like the Ives and Mahler pieces, are much more than accompaniment and he played with great style, even bravura.
So, all in all, a very well chosen programme executed with great skill and, just as important, intelligence.