Marcus Farnsworth & James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall

Man is for the woman made; Not all my torments; Sweeter than roses
Verzagen, Op.72/4; Lerchengesang, Op.70/2; Bei dir sind meine Gedanken, Op.95/2; Unbewegte laue Luft, Op.57/8; Willst du, dass ich geh, Op.71/4
Mörike Lieder [selections: Auf einer Wanderung; Schlafendes Jesuskind; Begegnung; Gebet; Abschied]
Folksong arrangements [selections: Sally in our alley; Lord! I married me a wife; Greensleeves; The plough boy]

Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) & James Baillieu (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

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

Marcus Farnsworth. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaThe latest in this series of scaled-down Sunday afternoon song recitals united the winners of the 2009 Wigmore Hall/Kohn International Song Competitions in both the singer and pianists categories. Marcus Farnsworth has a sturdy baritone voice with plenty of shades, though they were rationed in this programme of only some fifty minutes of music. The singer only held the spotlight in a brief Purcell group. The crudely truculent sentiments of “Man is for the woman made” were proudly, unapologetically affirmed by Farnsworth. In total contrast were the deeply intense suffering of disappointed love, expressed through the long melismas of “Not all my torments”, and the sensual impact of a single kiss in “Sweeter than roses”. There was abundant evidence of both technical accomplishment and comprehensive musical sympathy in both.

James Baillieu. Photograph: Oxford LiederJames Baillieu came into his own in the Brahms selection. Significantly, the programme notes by Richard Stokes mostly concentrated on the pianist’s contribution in the choice of songs. “Verzagen” and “Bei dir sind meine Gedanken” both seemed to be in search of a melody, its place taken in the former by the ceaselessly moving depiction of the sea, both on the surface and in the depths, in which Baillieu was particularly agile. The latter was dominated by the fluttering figures which portray the ceaseless obsession of the poet’s thoughts.Only one of the five songs seems representative of the composer at his best as a song-composer: in “Unbewegte laue Luft” Farnsworth lingered on the long vowels of the opening lines to establish the stillness of the setting before he launched both his own outbursts of passion and the invitation to his beloved to respond. There was much power here and concentrated tone, not bluster. A good case was made for “Willst du, dass ich geh” to be as well-known as its counterpart “Vergebliches Ständchen”. This time the young man requests to be allowed to stay the night, conjuring up all sorts of lurid threats which await him outside should he be ejected. Farnsworth acted the role of the desperate lover, Baillieu his imagination. Though the composer was more successful in finding a melodious line in the nostalgic “Lerchengesang”, I have heard the song delivered to greater effect with more withdrawn tone.

In the German repertoire Farnsworth’s interpretations were a little conservative. Had this been a competition I suspect that he would have risked more interpretative daring in terms of dynamic contrast and body-language. It was arguably a matter of relief that his Mörike songs were not intellectualised, with every change of harmony reflected in a minute change of vocal colour. Rather there were phrases of great beauty to remember, such as the final lines of ‘Gebet’ and ‘Schlafendes Jesuskind’, and high comedy as the smug critic was painfully sent packing in ‘Abschied’. Farnsworth’s enunciation was admirable all through, no more so than in ‘Begegnung’, with its encounter between two lovers, their adventure of the previous night unspoken but insinuated. But it was the accompaniment which kept coming to the fore, locating both the physical backgrounds and commenting on the emotional development of the poetry.

There seemed to be a patch of rather watery tone when pressed towards the top of the singer’s range and when it came to Britten’s folksong arrangements he took three verses of “Sally in our alley” to hit the highest note of the refrain precisely. Nevertheless, Farnsworth clearly identified with the young man and his narrative as he walked out proudly with Sally, got a good hiding from his master, sneaked out of church to see her and looked forward to their marriage. Following on ironically was “Lord! I married me a wife”, set by Britten for voice and harp as his health deteriorated in his final years and he could no longer accompany Peter Pears at the piano. Here, with accompaniment reverting to the keyboard, it was uproariously sung and played, the poor husband’s complaints supported in his shock and outrage by the pianist’s staccato chords, typical of the economy with which Britten enriched his source material in these settings. One encore, “I wonder as I wander”, confirmed the point.

Marcus Farnsworth had earned his Winner’s Recital but he was upstaged by his prodigiously gifted pianist. James Baillieu is surely the leader of the new generation of accompanists and will no doubt occupy the elite position currently held by such as Graham Johnson, Julius Drake, Malcolm Martineau and Roger Vignoles.

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