Simon Keenlyside & Malcolm Martineau at Barbican Hall

Erwartung, Op.2/1
Spruch 1939; Unter den grünen Pfefferbäumen; In den Hügeln wird Gold gefunden; Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt;Zwei Lieder nach Worten von Pascal [Despite these miseries; The only thing]; Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann; Verfehlte Liebe; Spruch
Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74
Mörike-Lieder – Denk’es, o Seele; Um Mitternacht; Auf eine Christblume II; Lied eines Verliebten
Goethe-Lieder – Wie sollte ich heiter bleiben; Blumengruss
Alinde, D904; Der Wanderer, D649; Herbstlied, D502; Verklärung, D59
Verzagen Op.72/4; Über die Heide, Op.86/4; Nachtigallen schwingen lustig, Op.6/6

Simon Keenlyside (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 18 December, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Simon Keenlyside. Photograph: © Uwe ArensEvery good song recital has to have a theme these days; this one had several and not only the age-old debate over the relative importance of words and music. Also influential in the singer’s choice of material were the relationship between poet and musician, the development of the Lied in the twentieth-century and the involvement of politics.

In a thoughtful programme note, one of the best I have read, Christopher Cook suggested that the discussion over which comes first in Art Song, music or poetry, should be regarded less as a struggle for supremacy between the two elements than as a genuine dialogue. The listener should consider where the writer leads the musician. After all, it is the writer who catches the imagination of the musician and provides the initial impetus for the creative process. The verse does not have to be of high quality but its fusion with the music may lead to artistry of enduring value.

The choice by Simon Keenlyside of Lieder composers was intended to establish continuity between the great tradition of the nineteenth-century and the direction in which the Lied travelled when atonality appeared on the scene. Tribute was paid to Arnold Schoenberg by opening the recital with his ‘Erwartung’ (not the monodrama for female voice but the first of the Vier Lieder, Opus 2) from his fin de siècle period. There the poet could hardly have been one of stronger personality. Richard Dehmel, also chosen by Richard Strauss for songs such as ‘Befreit’ and ‘Wiegenlied’, was a social and political radical, held at the time to hold scandalously liberal views on sexual morality and indicted for blasphemy and obscenity in his poetic collection, Weib und Welt. In ‘Erwartung’ he pictures a man impatiently awaiting the signal for admission to his lover’s house. Strauss would have readily recognised the over-ripe romanticism of Schoenberg’s style in the sweeping quintuplets and sextuplets of the piano accompaniment and the snatches of cantabile in the vocal part.

Numbered amongst Schoenberg’s pupils was Hanns Eisler, a left-winger in the Weimar Republic, who suffered exile in 1933 and spent much of the next fifteen years in the United States, teaching and writing film music. In 1947 he fell foul of the Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities and returned to Europe, settling in Communist East Berlin.

Malcolm Martineau. Photograph: © Russell DuncanFor Eisler, composing was a political act and his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht is a major part of the Hollywooder Liederbuch. By the time of his career in exile in California Eisler felt that his socialism could best be served by writing music accessible to the proletariat, so these songs owe more to Blues and Jazz procedures than to the serial techniques of his teacher. Eisler was a prolific song-writer; Keenlyside’s and Martineau’s selection highlighted the Brecht settings, which are virtually all laconic, often ending peremptorily, or with a sense of non-completion. ‘Unter den grünen Pfefferbäumen’, which refers to Bach and Dante, ends with a jokey profanity from Brecht. Both artists were profoundly ambivalent about Hollywood, the place which offered them a living but which they saw as generating illusory dreams (‘In den Hügelnwird Gold gefunden’). Even without recourse to serialism the ambiguity of tonal versus atonal harmony and minor versus major in ‘Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt’ embodies the basic contradiction Brecht saw in Hollywood for the unsuccessful (“Paradies und Hölle könneneine Stadt sein”). Also by Brecht are the two proverbs which opened and closed the group, surprisingly in English translation, though not that which was printed in the programme.

This was until recently a far-flung area of the Lieder repertoire but this performance reflected Eisler’s movement into the mainstream. Keenlyside clearly regards him as a song-writer who is firmly planted in the tradition of the German Lied.

The baritone has added dramatic roles in the Italian operatic repertoire to his armoury in recent years. I was not convinced that the voice was entirely at home as Rodrigo in Don Carlo or as Macbeth but what was immediately evident here was his total confidence in being able to communicate to the furthest corners of a Hall which is not always kind to singers in voice and piano recitals. On no more than a single occasion during a long evening’s work was he momentarily drowned by Malcolm Martineau, and that in the first encore. The clarity of Keenlyside’s enunciation of the (mostly German) texts was impressive. For an artist well-known for the physicality of his stage presence, Keenlyside was restrained, his movement minimal, relying on facial expression often to support the words. He was the very opposite of mannered: he avoided leaning too insinuatingly on the tone or registering the irony inherent in the texts, particularly Brecht’s, too obviously. The very last sentence of ‘Spruch’ made its effect by nothing more explicit than a smile.

It is interesting to read what Eisler has to say about the type of singer he envisaged for his songs: while the possession of a good voice and great musicality were desirable, he stressed the avoidance of sentimentality and pathos in favour of intellectual objectivity. One imagines he would have been satisfied on all counts with the way his music was given here.

Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake stand undiluted as a powerful legacy of the composer’s admiration for English poetry. His settings of Blake are hardly less politically engaged than the German writer in ‘London’ and ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’. Keenlyside conveyed the poet’s sense of indignation and injustice in ‘London’, then took on the alternating roles of child chimney-sweep and concerned passer-by in the dialogue which establishes the innocence of the neglected child and the hypocrisy of his parents.The allegorical ‘A poison tree’ was even better, using a range of vocal resource successfully: control over the head-voice, clear divisions at “And I sunned it with smiles, and with soft deceitful wiles”, a finely judged climax, voice and piano united in triumph. Both in general mood and in detail Martineau ensured by his careful observation of Britten’s instructions that the poetic ideas were fully endorsed by the music. The last two songs gave additional evidence of the success of the partnership of these two artists, especially ‘Ah, Sun-flower!’, both majestic in welcoming the flower, with the accompaniment frequently embellishing the vocal line. For once ‘The Tyger’ was not the centre of interest. With so much emphasis on Britten’s settings of poetry for the tenor voice, his writing for baritone has perhaps been neglected. It is difficult to imagine the work better performed than by this partnership of equals in both creation and re-creation, two giants of the former matched by a contemporary pairing of distinction.

And so back to the nineteenth-century heritage of song, though not to Richard Strauss, as originally planned; this recital was intended to replicate one given in Vienna earlier in December. Martineau having fallen ill, Graham Johnson replaced him and the Strauss group gave way to Hugo Wolf. There was some confusion until the last minute which it was to be with Martineau restored to health. Keenlyside must surely be at least a nominee for the best Wolf singer around today, so most would surely have welcomed the outcome. ‘Um Mitternacht’ sounded new-minted. The creation of a mood of lethargy, the singer’s impeccable legato and well-considered phrasing, the postponement of full voice until late in the piece, all these features were constant and admirable. Almost as impressive was the humorous Mörike setting ‘Lied eines Verliebten’ and these two performers even managed to generate interest in two uneventful Goethe songs.

An enterprising set of four songs represented Schubert and his poets. Johann Friedrich Rochlitz, an enthusiastic supporter of the composer, was rewarded by having his poem Alinde set to music, performed here by Keenlyside and Martineau with appreciation of the subtle variations which accompany an apparently simple strophic pattern. The arch-Romantic Friedrich Schlegel’s Wanderer is an unusually contented traveller. Singer and pianist responded to this poetry with a depiction of untroubled tranquillity. ‘Verklärung’ is a translation by Herder of Alexander Pope’s poem Transfiguration, with its Biblical reference to the death of death (“O Death! Where is thy sting?”). It here became a kind of short dramatic cantata, recitatives alternating with cantabile passages.

Finally, and something of a surprise, Keenlyside chose Brahms to complete his survey of Schubert’s successors. Though generally too often short of melodic inspiration, there is no doubt that the composer was inspired by Karl Lemcke’s poem Verzagen to write a piano part which so excitingly conveyed the tumultuous forces of nature which the poet describes, while Hoffmann von Fallersleben provided a similar stimulus for the vivid painting in Brahms’s setting of his Nachtigallen schwingen.

Encores were generously distributed. In Wolf’s ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ Martineau let off the brakes with his great peroration followed by a diminuendo to nothing, beautifully managed. Three more Schubert songs followed. Keenlyside warned us of the hidden agenda contained in the seemingly straightforward ‘Gondelfahrer’. A fast, rhythmically clipped ‘Geheimes’ was followed by the singer’s trademark ‘Die Sterne’.

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