Simon Keenlyside & Julius Drake

Auf dem Kirchhofe, Op.105/4
Meerfahrt, Op.96/4
Nachtwandler, Op.86/3
Wir wandelten, Op.96/2
Es schauen die Blumen, Op.96/3
Ständchen, Op.106/1
Eastern Song: Enslaved by the rose, the nightingale
Christ is risen, Op.26/6
She is as Lovely as the Noon, Op.14/9
The Waterlily, Op.8/1
A Dream, Op.38/5
Ständchen, Op.17/2
All’ mein Gedanken, Op.21/1
Das Rosenband, Op.36/1
Hochzeitlich Lied, Op.37/6
Cäcilie, Op.27/2
Le travail du peintre
Carte postale
Avant le cinéma
Beau Soir
Voici que le printemps
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

Simon Keenlyside (baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 25 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Simon Keenlyside is now an established star and sex symbol of the operatic stage – as Royal Opera House posters clearly demonstrate. But it is worth remembering that he first came to prominence with an EMI CD of Schubert Lied. As his contribution to the Wigmore Hall’s Festival of Song, he and his distinguished accompanist, Julius Drake, chose a challenging programme encompassing a wide variety of styles.

Things did not start well. Late Brahms is full of epigrammatic rhythmic ideas, angular melodic lines and awkward intervals, and Keenlyside did not sound at ease. His phrasing lacked flow and line and there was a sense of ungainliness. This impression was heightened by his minimal use of portamento and the desire to make every note stand as an independent entity, an approach that simply doesn’t work in Brahms. Technically things were far from perfect, with suspect intonation in the opening verses of ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ and ‘Nachtwandler’ and an occasional ‘catch’ in the tone. In the Rimsky-Korsakov and at several points in the Rachmaninov there was a beat in the tone. ‘Christ is Risen’ was powerfully declaimed, but if I had not already been familiar with the song and had the text in front of me, I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was about. In the second Rachmaninov song – a typical piece of Russian misery – more darkness was needed. On the plus side, there was a whole range of tonal colours and dynamic shading on offer, and the tone at forte and above was well focused.

Richard Strauss’s songs are superb examples of late, wonderfully outdated German Romanticism and yet Keenlyside didn’t seem to truly ‘feel’ them. ‘All’ mein Gedanken’ was certainly bouncy and playful, but ‘Hochzeitlich Lied’ needed a greater sense of line and reverence. There were numerous vocal shadings and extremely beautiful sounds, but it didn’t cohere. And on the last word of this song and the final line of ‘Das Rosenband’, there was again a sense of unsteadiness in the tone and poor intonation. ‘Cäcilie’ was penned just before the composer got married and should be delivered with total abandon and rapture. Keenlyside was merely loud and efficient.

Perhaps because Keenlyside now spends most of his time on the stage, it was only when he could let rip that he really sounded convincing. But time and again he simply failed to communicate with the audience. Several weeks ago one of the greatest British baritones, Sir Thomas Allen, gave a memorable Wigmore Hall recital, where, with a failing voice, he held the audience in the palm of his hand and made them concentrate on every word. Keenlyside at present seems unable to do this.

However the French song improved things both vocally and interpretively. Poulenc’s affectionate, yet acerbic, description of leading French artists brought far more vivid word-painting and a more unified vocal line, where exquisite half-tones and well supported open pianissimos were integrated and used to expressive effect. The Debussy settings brought more of the same. I cannot imagine the final line of ‘Beau soir’ being more beautifully sung, while the pitter-patter sections of Poulenc’s ‘Avant le cinéma’ were brilliantly focused and full of wit.

Ravel’s Don Quichotte settings – his final compositions – were given earthy readings. Although Keenlyside did occasionally struggle with the bottom of his voice, even after the upward transpositions for high baritone (the songs were written for Chaliapin). But here and throughout the recital’s second half, it was clear that the singer was much more at ease and therefore better able to communicate.

Julius Drake was his usual assertive self. Like many accompanists he sees a song recital as an equal partnership and he wove some exquisite lines in the French songs and produced real power when needed. In an ideal world he would have used more sustaining pedal in the Brahms and Strauss settings, but this was distinguished playing.

There were several encores, all by Schubert, and here Keenlyside finally produced truly great Lieder singing. ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ had superb weight, projection and dynamic nuance. ‘Die Sterne’ and ‘Rastlose Liebe’ contained a myriad number of colours and the insouciant ‘L’incanto degli occhi’ was beautifully inflected. On a bizarre note, ‘Die Sterne’ was introduced by the singer as being dedicated to his “Dear friend Mark, whose mother conked out today” – which I thought was perhaps a little lacking in sensitivity!!

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