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Schubert, Wolf, Schumann:  Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 25.10.2009 (CC)

Brahms: Meerfahrt, Op. 96/4.

Mainacht, Op. 43/2.

Wie rafft ich mich auf in der Nacht, Op. 32/1.

Die Nachtigall, Op. 97/1.

Sehnsucht, Op. 14/8.

Vor dem Fenster, Op. 14/1.


Wo find’ ich Trost.

Bei einer Trauung.

Lied vom Winde.


Auf ein altes Bild.

Um Mitternacht.

Schumann : 12 Kerner-Lieder, Op. 35.

Simon Keenlyside has been busy of late, what with his Rodrigo in the ROH’s Don Carlo, his Wozzeck at the RFH (with Salonen) and now, a packed-out Lieder recital at the Wigmore. For this recital, at his side was one of the foremost Lieder accompanists of our time, Graham Johnson.

Keenlyside’s passion for song was blindingly obvious in his recent interview for Seen and Heard. Here was the proof in sonic terms. The Wigmore acoustic is like a graveyard for performers, so what a joy it was to hear Keenlyside and Johnson judge it perfectly in the first song, Brahms’ “Meerfahrt” (a Heine setting). The acoustic seemed the perfect vehicle for their expression, an impression reinforced by the ardent “Mainacht” (how perfectly judged was the neighbour note at the repetition of the phrase “In der Nacht”). The deliberate lightening and blanching of the voice for the brief “Die Nachtigall” seemed just right. The extended “Vor dem Fenster” emerged as a tone-poem, especially after another short song, “Sehnsucht”. Interestingly, this last song takes a folk text as its basis, and yet it is a sophisticated piece, moving from hypnotic lullaby to impressive climax.

The songs of Hugo Wolf encompass a huge range of expression. Adding an extra song to the originally advertised selection (“Bei einer Trauung”) gave us a group of six magnificently contrasted items. The low-lying pitch and Wagnerian chromaticisms of “Wo find’ ich Trost” made for disturbing listening and, while one was aware that the lowness of the writing stretched Keenlyside, it was never a real problem. The heavy “Wie einer Trauung”, the virtuoso piano performance of “Lied vom Winde”, the beautiful “Fussreise” (with a slight limp to the accompaniment) and the curiously disturbing Wolfian calm of “Um Mitternacht” all provided an experience that even eclipsed the Brahms.

Schumann’s Kerner-Lieder is not as well known as it should be. It is a miraculous cycle (‘Kerner’ refers to the name of the poet, Justinus Kerner) and, under the advocacy of Keenlyside, sounded every inch the true masterpiece it is. Contrasts were marked, and Keenlyside and Johnson delighted in Schumann’s own delight of setting up expectations and then confounding them. The linking of the final two poems, “Wer machte dich so krank?” and “Alte Laute” meant that the concentration was almost palpable. The capacity audience was reduced to complete silence. This close emerged as the natural climax of the cycle. Keenlyside and Johnson were as one mind, Keenlyside’s voice never faltering (wonderful high register in “Frage”, the ninth song). The impression as one listened was that this was Schumann’s greatest song-cycle. The emotional range was huge (climaxing perhaps at the impassioned climax of “Stille Tränen”. Risks were taken, and risks paid off. The encores (Wolf and Brahms) just set the seal on the evening.

A wonderful concert. Keenlyside’s new Wigmore Live disc is now available, and I look forward very much to hearing it in due course.

Colin Clarke


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