Florian Boesch reminded me of the terror I felt as a nine year-old boy treble: I had to walk home in the dark after rehearsing Schubert's version of The Erlking, with phantoms following. Boesch brought back the memory, because he really became each character as he sang - father, boy and Erlking - engaging with each to such an extent that he made it seem as if his throat was constricted with fear when the child was grabbed, this time in Carl Loewe’s version of Erlkönig, “Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich An!” He must have read Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, he was so immersed and involved in the characters and the themes, or perhaps he has watched old expressionist films, because he has a presence which would fit well into one.

Florian Boesch © Wiener Konzerthaus, Lukas Beck
Florian Boesch
© Wiener Konzerthaus, Lukas Beck

Boesch was well-known to many in the audience at this concert who remembered him from a previous Leeds Lieder+ Festival when he had arrived as a substitute for Robert Holl, who was indisposed. That was for a Winterreise which by all accounts was sensational. Some substitute! With the Festival’s Artistic Director Malcolm Martineau, a hawk of an accompanist, Boesch took us through a programme dominated by the words of the greatest German poets and the music of Schumann, Schubert, Loewe and Wolf. Boesch’s baritone voice is really imposing, more so in the lower registers, his charisma remarkable.

He was born for lieder-singing, and was perfectly at home with Schumann’s great song-cycle Liederkreis, conveying romantic grief as if it had just been invented, involving his whole body, appropriate gestures and a constantly earnest facial expression. He dealt with extremes while remaining intelligently detached, as in Warte, warte Wilder Schiffsmann (Wait, wait, wild seaman) where he delivered lines like “Blutquell, brich aus meinem Leib” (“Blood gush from my body”) with passion and magnificent sonority while remaining in charge. His capacity for tenderness was brought out in Mit Myrten und Rosen, lieblich und hold (With myrtles and roses, sweet and beautiful), in which sadness shades into hope, treading carefully and subtly through passages about the rekindling of old fires, the breaking of a magic spell, sadness and the breath of love.

The sensitive side was also evident in the Schubert pieces from Schwanengesang, which followed. His treatment of the barcarole Das Fischermädchen (The Fishing Maid) with its dance rhythm and the sombre Am Meer (By the sea) which followed it was most impressive, especially at “Aus deinen Augen liebevoll/ Fielen die Tränen fortgetrunken.” (“And from your loving eyes/ The tears rolled down”) when I am sure real tears were starting in his eyes. The desolation of the poet (Heinrich Heine) was conveyed with superb intensity, and now I am looking forward listening to Boesch’s treatment of some of the songs in Winterreise, written by a lesser poet. They all get the best from Boesch, I am told, even if they do not fully deserve all the attention.

Carl Loewe and Hugo Wolf followed. Loewe’s version of Erlkönig, as I remarked above, was given the works. Wolf’s Anakreons Grab (Anakreon’s Grave), Goethe’s contemplation of the grave of the famous lyric poet of Ancient Greece, who wrote largely about wine and love, like Omar Khayyam, was suitably subdued as a contrast.

More Schubert and Schumann completed the concert: An den Mond (To the Moon) followed on appropriately from Anakreon, and then came Der Gott und die Bajadere (The God and the Dancing Girl), which is a rather straggling narrative about Mahadeva, a god (possibly Shiva) from a romantically exotic India coming down to earth to feel the joys and sorrows of ordinary people and see things through human eyes. He becomes captivated by a dancing girl, who leaps into flames at the end (“Springt sie in den heißen Tod”) but who is rescued at the last moment. Schubert was wise enough to hold back on the tune, and Boesch made the story work well, sensitive to the dialogue and aware of every nuance. Schumann’s Gesänge des Harfners (The Harper’s Songs) came last, and we were left with despair and grief, beautifully presented.

One of the world’s leading accompanists together with one of the world’s leading baritones (he has reached the top of my list) together in Leeds! We were so privileged!