It occurred to me, as I sat awaiting the start of this concert, that I had never heard Simon Keenlyside in a straight song recital before. Whenever I have encountered the British baritone on the concert platform, there has always been some element of staging involved. Justly renowned for the natural and athletic physical engagement he brings to his performances on the operatic stage, I found myself unsure exactly what to expect of Keenlyside the Lieder recitalist.
The programme he chose to perform with pianist Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall, where he is currently an Artist in Residence, seemed designed to showcase the very opposite end of the spectrum of his ability, with quietness and stillness pervading the majority of the songs in the first half of the programme. Keenlyside has an intensity to his presence and a focus to his delivery which hold the attention of his audience; it was rather a warm evening for the time of year, and I was tired, but never once (even during slow, quiet song after slow, quiet song) did I find my concentration wandering.
The opening Brahms and Wolf sets – the Brahms an assortment, the Wolf a selection of the Mörike Lieder – were largely serious or melancholy in character, dominated by gentle triple- and compound-time songs with rocking piano accompaniments. Even the mellifluous Brahms serenade ‘Vor dem Fenster’, welcome after the wistful simplicity of ‘Sehnsucht’, is full of unresolved minor-key yearning. Additional to the Wolf songs in the printed programme, the funereal wedding-song ‘Bei einer Trauung’ (commenting on the celebration, or otherwise, of a loveless high-society union) drew out the restrained mood even longer than originally scheduled. Cunningly positioned in the running order, the refreshment afforded by Graham Johnson’s rushing, swirling scales in ‘Lied vom Winde’ came just as the mood threatened to become stifling. One of the most interesting and satisfying individual interpretations was of ‘Fußreise’, that light-hearted celebration of the wonders of creation, which Keenlyside began in an almost sombre mood and lightened as it progressed, as if sung by a bluff old man who notices the beauty of the world anew and is rejuvenated by it. He quickly reverted to introverted seriousness for the hymn -like ‘Auf ein altes Bild’ and ended the first half of the programme with a glowing ‘Um Mitternacht’.
After the interval, Schumann’s 12 Kerner Lieder afforded a greater variety of colour and texture, and Keenlyside found particularly exuberant power in ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’ and ‘Wanderlied’. His delivery was by no means flawless, though; there was a touch of strain in some of the topmost notes, in both the falsetto evocation of the fervent prayer of a young would-be nun in ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ and the fortissimo declamations of some of the cycle’s few overtly passionate passages. More prevalent and certainly more troublesome were Keenlyside’s frequent lapses of verbal memory which gave us a range of variants on the printed text. Had it happened once or twice, as it did in the Brahms and Wolf, I might not have thought it worth mentioning, but in the sixth of the Schumann songs, ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’, so many lines were transposed or displaced that it almost became an entirely different poem.
Following the soft, bleak ending of the Kerner Lieder, the first encore, Brahms’s ‘An eine Aölsharfe’, matched the overall character of the main body of the recital, highlighting Johnson’s luminous command of the rocking harp-figures in the accompaniment, but it was with another bout of turbulence – in Wolf’s ‘Lied eines Verliebten’ – that the evening was brought to a close.