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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, ‘Schwanengesang.’ Jonathan Lemalu, Michael Hampton. Wigmore Hall, Monday September 23rd. (ME)


Jonathan Lemalu has enjoyed as swift a rise to fame as any singer I’ve come across, and this is partly justified, since his bass-baritone is genuinely beautiful and he is clearly a real stage animal, with plenty of personality ideally suited to many operatic roles. His MSND Bottom and his Gianni Schicchi, both at the Royal College, showed tremendous promise of great things to come, and a recent recital with Sarah Walker and RogerVignoles was almost equally impressive. However, I have uneasy feelings about him, mainly stemming from the sheer volume of high-profile work he has taken on, and the fact that he seems to be under-prepared at times; Boston friends tell me that at a recent Tanglewood Festival concert he seemed to be either coasting or simply overwhelmed, and this Wigmore Hall recital may well have come too early for him. Everyone wants to discover a great new star, and the absurd adulation given to his (really only promising) debut disc by ‘Gramophone’ is clear evidence of that fact; is he being pushed too far, too fast? Only time will tell, but his own website sadly does not portend too well; for connoisseurs of such things, be warned that it is right up there with, say, Susan Graham’s in ‘Yuk’ factor terms, but she at least has already had a stellar career to counteract the nausea. In passing, Lemalu’s site credits someone called ‘Sir Thomas Hampson’ (sic) with having influenced his career; oh dear.

Back to the music. Any singer who manages to get through this ‘cycle’ without depending on a score, and without any textual errors save the common one of reversing the order of the stanzas in ‘Abschied,’ gets a big tick and a star from me, just for starters, and Lemalu not only managed that but also sang much of it quite beautifully. Someone once described another singer to me as having ‘a really lovely voice, but one that’s not terribly well connected to her head,’ and that phrase might equally well apply to Lemalu at the present time, both technically and physically. The voice is rich, sonorous and used with taste and musicality, but as yet the interpretation is barely formed, and he seems to sing many of the words with lovely tone but without convincing us that he really understands what he’s singing about.

He has clearly studied both past and present masters of the genre, and one day his own singing may well stand alongside that of his major influences, who I would say at present are Ainsley for the Rellstab settings and Hotter for the Heine. He has clearly been listening very intensely to the Hyperion recording, since for songs such as ‘Liebesbotschaft’ he does, or tries to do, everything Ainsley does, but without that tenor’s unforced charm and naturally ardent manner; thus ‘Eilst zur Geliebten’ had the ideal slight pressure on the first word, but ‘Wiege das Liebchen…’ missed the last ounce of tenderness. Slightly more worrying is Lemalu’s indefinite diction at present, and this is an area where further study of his English colleague would be well worth his while, since at present he frequently sings words such as ‘mich’ and ‘dich’ without their endings, and some such as ‘du’ are omitted altogether. There was plenty of ardour in ‘Ständchen,’ but neither he nor his worthy accompanist really made you feel that they had looked at the song afresh. The latter’s sometimes rather leaden accompaniment made ‘Abschied’ rather heavy weather, but Lemalu did relax a little during this song, whilst maintaining his concept of it as a melancholy rather than jolly piece, again echoing the Hyperion version.

Hotter’s influence is readily apparent in the Heine songs, and here Lemalu seemed more at home, perhaps because their generally more sombre nature is more in keeping with the colour of his voice. I kept wishing that he would ‘open up’ a little, since I know he has it in him to produce the forward tone needed in ‘Ihr Bild’ and ‘Am Meer,’ but both were on the reticent side. ‘Der Doppelgänger’ had moments of great intensity, but there was little sense that he knows the meaning of phrases like ‘Und ringt die Hände’ and ‘Mir graust es,’ and the tremendous power he has at his command remained latent rather than frankly released, as I think it needs to be in this song. ‘Die Taubenpost’ was beautifully sung, with just the right sense of aching tenderness, and the proper acknowledgement of the centrality of that key word ‘Sehnsucht!’ yet without leaning on it too much. The audience was warm but not ecstatic, and that just about sums up my own feelings: this is a real talent who will have a great career, but at present he needs to slow down a little, since he has everything to look forward to in the years ahead.


Melanie Eskenazi

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