Ben Johnson & James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall – Schwanengesang

Schwanengesang, D957

Ben Johnson (tenor) & James Baillieu (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 3 October, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Ben Johnson. ©Robert PiwcoWith Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber’s recent Schwanengesang still resonating at the Wigmore Hall from nine days previously, it was a brave move indeed by BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist Ben Johnson to present his interpretation of the publisher-compiled song-cycle at this BBC Lunchtime Concert.

It took a little while for the balance between Johnson and James Baillieu to settle, for in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ the tenor’s sound was withdrawn, too ‘into’ the piano despite a clear tone. The two musicians were soon aligned, however, and Johnson became more authoritative and emotive in the sombre songs – of which there are several. At significant moments Johnson had a tendency to sing slightly flat, which was a striking effect seemingly employed for expressive purposes. In ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ this occurred on the words “was zehst Du mich, sehnend verlangender Sinn, Hinab?” (Why, longing desire, do you draw me down?). In ‘Die Stadt’ it was when “Die Sonne hebt sich noch einmal” (‘the Sun rises once again’), where Baillieu’s ghostly accompaniment was a mere whisper.

James Baillieu. Photograph: Oxford LiederAs the cycle progressed so did Johnson’s command, and though his voice was rarely big it commanded attention especially in the slower material. ‘In der Ferne’ was notable for the starkness of its delivery, the “glittering evening star” truly “sinking without hope”, while there was a hint of light in ‘Ihr Bild’, before darkness descended again. Baillieu brought a pleasant rippling texture to ‘Das Fischermädchen’, which offered some blessed relief as singer and piano complemented each other, and there was serenity of a very different kind in ‘Am Meer’, containing striking pointers towards the music of Mahler. Baillieu’s two chords at the end of this may have been quiet but they were tellingly struck.

The sense of foreboding became ever stronger with each song, leading inevitably to the horror of ‘Der Doppelgänger’, which the pair took as slow as they dared, Johnson finally hitting full power in an arresting account of the protagonist as he glimpses the wraith, its ghastly countenance revealed. In the wake of this ‘Die Taubenpost’ offered some calm, its counter melody beautifully turned by Baillieu, before a nicely chosen encore of An die Musik (D547).

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