Simon Keenlyside Recital
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 26 October 2008. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
Full track listing at end of review

So much unreserved praise has already been afforded to this CD that more seems almost redundant. Nevertheless, it is so fully deserved that perhaps a little more wouldn’t go amiss. In years to come, this recording may well be seen as a milestone marking the halfway point in Keenlyside’s recording career. It captures his voice and his artistry at an ideal moment, his voice still supple and rich but with the burnished tones of maturity, his expression personal and immediate but also benefiting from a clear knowledge of his forebears.

He is well served by his companion, the recording team and the acoustic. Malcolm Martineau is an accompanist with a long pedigree of sensitive yet engaging lieder accompaniment, and his playing here is exemplary. The way he matches Keenlyside’s phrasing and rubato speaks of close artistic empathy, and his masterly stylistic transition from the Germanic repertoire on the first half of the disc to the French in the second matches that of Keenlyside himself.

The technical side of the recording was overseen by Tony Faulkner, who opts for a very bright sound. This could seem out of place in a recording of such intimate chamber music, but for a release on the Wigmore Hall Live label it is ideal. The generous acoustic is such a distinctive feature of the venue, that to lose it in such a project would risk diluting one of the key features of the label’s identity. The generous sound also works to the piano’s favour, giving the instrument a warmth commensurate with Simon Keenlyside’s rich baritone.

Keenlyside is in the habit of rearranging the order of works after recital programmes are in print, and I understand that he reorganised this concert, but that the original order was reinstated for the recording. The first work on the disc, Schubert’s An Silvia certainly sounds like an ideal opener: fresh, forthright and exuberant. The six Schubert lieder are performed with a balance of emotion and restraint, passionate yes, but never operatic. In fact, and as Hilary Finch observes in her liner-notes, Keenlyside creates variety of expression by exploring the opposite extreme, his rich tone occasionally giving way to a vocal timbre drained of colour.

A selection from Wolf’s “Mörike Lieder” follows. They are a little more angular than the Schubert, and Wolf struggles to match his predecessor’s natural instinct for melody. Texturally though, the selection complements the Schubert, the voice is often in a higher register - where Keenlyside also excels, albeit with a lighter tone. The wider ranging piano figurations are clearly from a later date in the instrument’s history.

The Fauré songs are lighter fare. Keenlyside’s pronunciation of the French texts is a delight, and he’s not above leaning on the nasal vowel sounds for added French colour. But it is the intimacy instilled by both performers into these mélodies that makes the performances really special. This allows even Fauré’s more dramatic moments - the conclusion of Fleur jetée, for example - a sense of freshness and immediacy.

So too with Ravel, whose Histoires naturelles is surely the ideal repertoire for a zoology graduate like Keenlyside. More significantly perhaps, the range of these songs is lower; they’re in real baritone territory, and to my ear that is where he sings best. Not that his upper register is deficient, but the complex, richness of his sound lower down is perhaps his most satisfying and distinctive vocal trait.

Poulenc’s Hôtel closes the disc by way of an encore, a nice touch for those approaching the disc as a surrogate for the live experience. It is however a shame for those of us who would rather have heard one of the other Schubert lieder from the recital that was cut for the sake of space. But that is a minor grumble about what is otherwise an excellent disc, both a fine recording on its own terms, and an elegant document of the sort of world-class recital for which the Wigmore Hall is justifiably famous.

Gavin Dixon

Track listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
An Sylvia D891 (1826) [2:47]
Die Einsiedelei D393 (1816) [1:33]
Verklärung D59 (1813) [3:36]
Die Sterne D939 (1828) [3:35]
Himmelsfunken D651 (1819) [3:03]
Ständchen D957 No. 4 (1828) [4:25]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Der Knabe und das Immlein [2:56]
Gesang Weylas [1:37]
An die Geliebte [3:20]
Auf eine Christblume II [2:12]
Lied eines Verliebten [1:44]
Lied vom Winde [3:10]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Aubade Op. 6 No. 1 (1873) [2:10]
En sourdine Op. 58 No. 2 (1891) [3:09]
Green Op. 58 No. 3 (1891) [1:58]
Notre amour Op. 23 No. 2 (c 1879) [1:58]
Fleur jetée Op. 39 No. 2 (1884) [1:35]
Spleen Op. 51 No. 3 (1888) [2:29]
Madrigal de Shylock Op. 57 No. 2 (1889) [1:32]
Le papillon et la fleur Op. 1 No. 1 (1861) [2:49]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Histoires naturelles (1906) [18:51]
Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
Hôtel (1940) [2:35]