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Recital at La Monnaie/DeMunt
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. live, 21 June 1996, Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels. DDD

British tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson switched from farming to training as a singer at the relatively late age of 29 and made his professional debut at 33. He died prematurely, aged 69, in 2010

This recital is an apt memorial to his stellar talents. His singing was characterised by extraordinarily vivid and nuanced diction and the ability to sing with both melting softness and clarion strength. Although he excelled on the operatic stage, he was also an exceptionally vivid and versatile communicator in song. Here he performs songs by three favourite composers in a cunningly balanced programme spanning the late 17th century to the mid-20th, with nine Schubert songs forming the central tranche. I will readily confess that I do not like Britten’s songs and find his habit of punctuating them with sudden outbursts of dissonant chords and remote keys irritating and unpleasant, but for those who respond to Britten’s idiom, I can hear that Rolfe Johnson gives them the best possible advocacy - and he clearly loved them.

He was in his mid-fifties in 1996 and there is a very slight loosening of the vibrato at high volume; otherwise the voice is in superb condition and he displays all the virtues which made him so beloved of the public. His enunciation, in both English and German, is exemplary, and springs from his sensitivity to, and appreciation of, the metaphysical import of the words he is singing. He displays flawless coloratura in the Purcell “Alleluia”, trumpets top notes fearlessly and employs a voice which always especially lent itself to depicting tender emotion to caress gentler passages. The emphasis in his choice upon some of the later, less well-known Schubert Lieder is a welcome one. An exception is the favourite “Erlkönig”, which is not given an overtly large-scale performance in the manner of bigger-voiced artists like Terfel or Norman, but is beautifully nuanced and dramatically very engaging. He is matched by wonderfully adept, subtle and expressive pianism from Graham Johnson, doyen of modern accompanists.

The sound is first-rate, the audience virtually silent until the concluding applause. The two concluding folk songs, the haunting “O Waly, Waly” and the Oliver Cromwell ditty, are both a delight.

A few minor gripes: texts are provided but only in the original languages - no translations. The gaps between tracks are absurdly short; presumably applause has been edited out but the effect of there being no time to make the transition of mood from one song to another is clumsy and disconcerting. The back cover lists all the songs in lower case throughout, which is illiterate, especially in German. This being a live recital and given the clarity of the diction, several slips in the singer’s German are in evidence, but I cannot dwell on those demerits in the face of so much lovely singing from a great artist.
Ralph Moore
Track listing
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
We sing to him Z.199 [1:34]
A morning hymne: thou wakeful shepherd Z.198 [2:48]
In the black dismal dungeon of despair Z.190 [4:31]
Alleluia [2:10]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Vor meine Wiege D.297 [5:02]
An die Laute D.905 [1:30]
Alinde D.904 [4:09]
Klage an den Mond D.436 [1:35]
Der Vater mit dem Kind D.906 [4:25]
Erlkönig D.328 [4:05]
Die Sommernacht D.289 [2:57]
Die frühen Gräber D.290[1:55]
Der Winterabend D.938 [7:51]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Winter Words Op. 52 [19:24]
The Birds [1:59]
O Waly, Waly [3:35]
Oliver Cromwell: nursery rhyme from Suffolk [1:00]



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