Wandering in a mythical wood, a poet encounters a seductive sphinx. As he succumbs to her kisses, she shreds his body with her leonine claws. This grisly tale is the foreword to the third edition of Heinrich Heine’s best-selling poetry collection, Buch der Lieder, and it also preambled the all-Heine evening with baritone Florian Boesch in musical settings by Schumann, Schubert and Liszt. Thomas Quasthoff, retired singer but active performer, recited poems between the song sets. Actor and singer were two halves of the poet’s portrait, the singing baritone vacillating between lyrical fragility and wounded fury, the speaking baritone introducing perspective through irony. Mr Boesch’s lighter voice embodied youthful rapture and misery, while Mr Quasthoff’s resonations, electronically amplified, pondered them from a narrative distance.

Florian Boesch © Wiener Konzerthaus | Lukas Beck
Florian Boesch
© Wiener Konzerthaus | Lukas Beck

The sphinx in the opening poem typifies the love object in Heine’s early poems, many probably inspired by his unrequited love for his cousin, Amalie Heine, and later for her younger sister. (He was outraged at this facile connection of his work to biographical facts.) The women in the poems are beautiful but heartless, like the siren in Die Loreley. They mesh their golden hair into deadly nets or harbour snakes in their hearts. When their love is true, they are threatened by death. Ecstasy almost always turns to torture. Heine’s wallowing in self-pity can be as maddening as that of Goethe’s hero in the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. However, Heine frequently spices his work with irony, which gives his poems a modern flavour. Thomas Quasthoff was reflectively sorrowful in the love poems, but also gleefully ironic – in the mocking chirruping of the birds in Das Liedchen von der Reue (The Little Song of Regret), for instance. The texts often visited the supernatural, and if there is one thing his chocolate ganache voice can summon up, it is dread. In Die Brautnacht (The Wedding Night), his foreboding tone opened up to full horror in a highly energetic rendering of this long danse macabre. It was a performance marked by tonal beauty and versatility. Regrettably, the Concertgebouw does not provide translations of German texts, something they do for other languages. Assuming that all patrons understand German excludes those who do not. The text sheet should include at least a short description of each poem in Dutch for the locals and in English for the international public.

Anyone facing the language barrier would still have come away with a strong sense of the poet’s buffeted soul, thanks to Florian Boesch’s unreservedly candid performance. With an intensity that sometimes made one flinch, Mr Boesch laid out painful longing, obsessive navel-gazing and existential terror in full anatomical detail. His expressive devices ranged from the subtlest Sprechgesang (spoken singing) to cracking operatic thunder, making him a riveting narrator in Schumann’s retelling of Belshazzar’s feast and the ominous writing on the wall. By embracing the words completely, Mr Boesch became an emotional conduit between music and audience. In the first song set, Schumann’s Der arme Peter (Poor Peter), he captured the pathos of a simple soul broken by rejection. In the selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song), especially in the unhinged fury of Der Doppelgänger, he demonstrated that a sophisticated intellect offers no protection against heartache. His group of Liszt songs ended with a lyrically haunting Die Loreley, whose repeated last phrase, “Loreley did that” (that is, sunk the ship), sounded as if he was mulling it over for the first time.

The final group consisted of Schumann’s entire Liederkreis, Op.24, in which Mr Boesch delved further into the injured psyche, from the histrionic rage of Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann (Wait, wait, wild boatman) to the determined morbidness of Mit Myrten und Rosen (With myrtle and roses). With incisive detail he embossed a flesh-and-blood character onto the text. Just one example: he somehow gave the impression of sighing during a rest without actually doing so. The singing was an unalloyed pleasure, with unbroken legato, rounded lows and honeyed soft notes. At the piano, Justus Zeyen was emphatic in rapid phrases, his scales not always cascading cleanly, an approach that agreed better with Liszt than either Schubert or Schumann. He was more nuanced at slower tempos and ever mindful of Mr Boesch’s phrasing, the Liederkreis being their most refined collaboration. The encores were cheerier than the main programme. Mr Quasthoff read Die Heimkehr (The Journey Home), in which falling in love is a pleasant surprise rather than a shadow of doom. In Mein Wagen rollet langsam (My coach rolls slowly) Mr Boesch again deployed Sprechgesang for a traveller’s good-humoured reverie. Mr Zeyen gave us more of his best in Schumann’s scoring of the rolling motion, the long postlude pattering gently into the distance.