sun 29/01/2023

William Thomas, Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall review - a richly modulated journey | reviews, news & interviews

William Thomas, Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall review - a richly modulated journey

William Thomas, Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall review - a richly modulated journey

Bass and pianist take us everywhere from the Danube to Hades

Impressive expressive range: William ThomasWigmore Hall

William Thomas has fast made an impact as a rapidly rising (or should that be descending?) star of the bass world. Though he has only recently graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, his awards include Winner of the Veronica Dunne International Competition and Winner of the Critics’ Circle Award for Young Talent.

For those curious about what the fuss is, it’s clear from the first few notes that he has a tone so full and rich it makes you think of polished mahogany. Together with the acclaimed Scottish accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, he dispatched a programme of 19th and early 20th century German and Austrian songs that took us everywhere from the Danube to Hades.

The concert opened with an Italian flourish, as he deftly performed Schubert’s exquisite, gently satirical setting of Metastasio’s "L’incanto degli occhi". With its comically dramatic contrasts of emotion, this perfectly demonstrated Thomas’s ability to fill his voice with light or shade as the occasion demands. Each separate mood was beautifully shaped, “Ardir m’inspirate,/Se liete splendete;/Se torbidi siete,/Mi fate tremar,” (“You inspire me with daring/if you shine joyfully; if you are overcast, you make me tremble”). It was a nicely judged amuse-bouche for the richer fare to follow.

The full sense of Thomas’s expressive range was firmly established with "Auf der Donau" ("On the Danube"), where both he and Martineau revelled in Schubert’s word painting of the Mayrhofer text. As the piano accompaniment shimmered like the surface of a river on a calm summer’s day, with the lift of his voice Thomas managed to convey the exhilaration of watching “Alte Burgen ragen Himmerlan” (“Old castles soar heavenwards”). As he sang that the “Tannerwälder rauschen Geistergleich” (“Pine-forests stir like ghosts”) he amusingly evoked the trees with his subtle emphasis of the spikiness of the consonants. Then the text became more philosophical, “Wird uns bang –/Wellend droh’n, wie Zeiten/Untergang” and his tone shifted completely, becoming more deeply resonant and thoughtful. Maloclm Martineau and William ThomasThroughout, Martineau (pictured above with Thomas) nicely offset the richness of Thomas’s voice with his meticulously measured accompaniment. In the performance of Schubert’s "Das Fischermädchen" we saw the pair in spikily humorous mode as they gently sent up the deluded bombast of the fisher maiden’s suitor. Then in "Fahrt zum Hades" ("Journey to Hades") Thomas’s mastery of light and shade powerfully evoked the full emotional spectrum of a man yearning for the world he’s leaving behind.

The central section of the concert was devoted to Hugo Wolf, the Austrian composer who originally came from Slovenia – and sadly went mad from syphilis. His three Gedichte von Michelangelo, written right at the end of the 19th century, are a clear intensification of the musical dialogue that Schubert began with his song-cycles. After the anguished opening of “Wohl denk ich oft (“I often recall”), Thomas shifted to tortured triumphalism for the last stanzas “Und, dass ich da bin, wissen alle Leute!” (“And the entire world knows that I exist"). In "Fühlt meine Seele" ("Does my soul feel?") we get the full sense of a spirit in torment, emphasised once more by Thomas’s skilful pronunciation whether in the last wretched double “t” of “Gott” or the sweetness of the umlaut on “Süss” as he sang “Mich treibt ein Ja und Nein, ein Süss und Herbe” (“I am torn between yes and no, bitterness and sweetness”).

The "Fussreisse" ("A Journey on Foot"), "Der Tambour" ("The Drummer Boy") and "Bei einer Trauung" ("At a Wedding") from Wolf’s Morike Lieder proved an enjoyable excursion into the composer’s lighter side. Then we were onto the final part of this musical journey, taking in some Richard Strauss before returning to Schubert. In "Das Tal" ("The Valley"), Thomas beautifully delivered an ode by a dying man to the healing properties of the countryside that resonates particularly strongly today, conveying the well of the emotions as he recalled each feature of the landscape. Towards the end Martineau’s accompaniment soared, adding to the sense of pastoral freedom. By contrast, for "Der Einsame" ("The Solitary"), we got a real sense of depth and space as Thomas sang “Abgründ gähnt zu meinen Füssen” (“The abyss gapes beneath my feet”). In the modulated darkness of his voice it was possible to sense the final “primeval night”.

It was left to Schubert to send us out into the winter cold again, and for this Thomas had selected the sublime "Du bist die Ruh" ("You Are Repose") and "An Tage aller Seelen" ("On the Day of All Souls"). After the frequent turbulence of the past hour, the first song felt like a real balm, delivered in rich warm tones. The final stanza “Dies Augenzelt/Von deinem Glanz/Allein erhellt/O füll es ganz” (“This temple of my eyes/is lit/by your radiance alone/O fill it utterly”) was utterly exquisite. Then "On the Day of All Souls" provided a lyrical contemplation of life and mortality. It felt like a fitting end to a programme that had quite literally taken us to hell and back, thankfully leaving us feeling significantly better as a consequence.

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