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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Brahms, Wolf: Simon Keenlyside, Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall, Thursday May 30th 2002. (ME)


Im wünderschönen Monat Mai, als alle Knospen sprangen…………. well, actually, all the buds sprang into life here in London in March, but May certainly was a wonderful month for singing; in these 31 days I have had the privilege of hearing Juan Diego Florez, Thomas Quasthoff, Matthias Goerne (twice) John Mark Ainsley (twice) Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore, and as the month drew to a close, this lovely recital by a baritone whose art is the equal of most of the above, and an accompanist who is second to none.

Almost from the outset, it was clear that we were not hearing a singer in the absolute best of health, and whether this was due to his recent accident or other indisposition, it would be unfair to judge Keenlyside by his renditions of some of the songs here, since I am sure that, to take one very obvious example, he is normally more than capable of singing ‘An Silvia’ far more comfortably than he did on this occasion. Nevertheless, this recital gave us the opportunity to experience some of the most beautiful singing and playing you could hope to hear, in a thoughtfully structured programme in which the well – loved predominated over the less familiar, with a neat balance kept between levity and intensity.

The first half was all Schubert, offering such well – known gems as ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ and ‘Ständchen’ (from ‘Schwanengesang’) as well as ‘An Silvia,’ although the finest performances came in those songs which might best be described as tempestuous in character. Keenlyside’s phrasing is extremely individual: his legato is not especially fluid, nor is his tone particularly beguiling, but he phrases the lines so that they appear to be delivered as if to the individual listener rather than some general audience body, and his love for this music is so transparently obvious that one cannot help but find his singing deeply engaging. This was especially true of ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’ where both he and Martineau evoked both the grandeur and mythical quality of the music with real mastery, and ‘Dem Undendlichen’ where Keenlyside’s superb diction was an absolute joy, particularly in ‘Allein du rufst mich aus meiner Nacht, der im Elend, der im Tode hilft’ – I can’t recall another singer since Fischer-Dieskau with such crispness of enunciation in such lines, and his forte at ‘kein Jubel genung besingt!’ was enough to knock you off your feet.

Martineau played the exquisite little ‘Himmelsfunken’ with such delicacy and tenderness that he almost eclipsed the singing, but this would have been difficult; Keenlyside managed that ecstatic B flat modulation at ‘trunkne Herz vergeht’ with throat-catching sweetness, and fined the voice down to a shimmering thread at the close. ‘Ständchen’ competed the first half, in a lovely, ardent performance of real tenderness, with none of the hectoring quality into which many singers can lapse, and with just the right sense of pleading at ‘Komm, beglücke mich.’ No shortage of takers, I’m sure.

The second half began with another serenade from a hesitant lover, this time Brahms, and this, too, was finely sing, but it was with ‘Die Mainacht’ that one really heard the skill of a great Lieder singer as well as that of a matchless pianist. This sublime song is, to me, one of the greatest in the repertoire, and I love it so much that I must have every known recording of it – not that that means a great deal, since there are many fine currently active singers who should record it but have not yet done so. Keenlyside and Martineau gave a superb rendition of it, the playing ideally balanced between poetic grace and strength, and the singing masterly in its tenderly lyrical ‘Wann, o lächelndes Bild’ and impressively powerful at the great forte of ‘Und die einsame Träne.’ This was the best thing in the recital, and indeed the best singing of Brahms that I’ve heard in a long while.

A group of Hugo Wolf songs formed the remainder of the recital, mostly chosen from the composer’s most well – known and loved pieces. My goodness, Keenlyside has been listening intently to his Fischer – Dieskau sets of Wolf recordings! It always amuses me to hear singers say that of course, they have ‘heard’ DFD but they are not at all influenced by him – it’s a bit like a poet of a certain school and age saying that they could not possibly have been remotely influenced by Yeats – so it’s refreshing to hear a singer who obviously just could not care less if people say that he’s copying the great German baritone, and why should he? Keenlyside does not lose his own individuality by learning from such a master, any more than Goerne has.

Keenlyside’s Wolf offers a totally different experience to that of the latter singer, yet no less valid in its own way. A good example to illustrate the differences would be ‘An die Geliebte’ which Goerne sings with rapt, mesmerizing stillness and wide – eyed wonder, and he delivers the final line, ‘Ich kniee, ihrem Lichtgesang zu lauschen’ in one unbroken curve of perfect legato. Keenlyside’s interpretation shows much more willingness to highlight certain words at the expense of the line, and he sings that last line in three separate phrases, divided by two distinct breaths. To my ears, this way is neither as impressive nor as moving as Goerne’s, but I can still understand how one could be engaged by it.

‘Peregrina I’ was beautifully sung but lacked that burnished glow, that warmth which Fischer – Dieskau brought to it, and ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ showed singer and pianist at their best, with Martineau’s finely articulated playing touching real heights in the rippling accompaniment to ‘Ach hier, wie liegt die Welt so licht!’ and Keenlyside’s lovely, forthright tone achieving just the right sense of release at ‘O Muse.’ The last three songs were in a much lighter vein, with ‘Abschied’ being given a wryly amusing performance – Martineau played those hilarious evocations of the ‘critic’ tumbling down the stairs with tremendous panache, and at one point I could have sworn that Keenlyside’s piercing gaze was being directed straight at the place where the Wigmore always seats these estimable personages. An enthusiastic audience were rewarded with two encores, Schubert’s adorable ‘L’incanto degli occhi’ and Wolf’s ‘Fussreise,’ both sung and played with the same loving skill which characterized this recital.



Melanie Eskenazi


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