Gesänge des Harfners: Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, D478; Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, D479; An die Türen, D480
The Diary of One who Disappeared
Toby Spence (tenor)
Wendy Dawn Thompson (mezzo-soprano)
Catherine Hopper, Lucie Spickova & Emma Carrington (female chorus)
Graham Johnson (piano)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 22 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
A dramatic ‘semi-staged’ performance of Janáček’s cycle of 23 poems formed the centrepiece of an extremely impressive lunchtime recital primarily given by Toby Spence and Graham Johnson. ‘Semi-staged’ in this case describes the care applied to the stage placing for the story, with Wendy Dawn Thompson’s gypsy woman ghosting onto the platform for her central part, appropriately dressed in a scarlet-flecked dress.
The three-strong female chorus was situated on the balcony, so that when song came from on high it provided an eerie response to Thompson’s seductive pursuit of the ploughman. By this time Spence was leaning wearily against the wall at the side of the stage, his resistance worn down.
Small details maybe, but they crowned a most exciting performance. Spence sang with great feeling, his diction clear and the range, both in pitch and dynamics, most impressive. In the chorale-like passage that tells of the ploughman’s distraction from his work he gave a brief show of defiance that the gypsy would not have her way, and was then appropriately horrified at the potential consequences when she did.
All this time there was the chance to marvel at Graham Johnson’s accompaniment, exquisitely shaded and bearing the hallmark of an artist with more than thirty years’ performing experience in this venue. The glow-worms really danced in the hedgerow under his twinkling fingers, while the lark flying up from the hazel bush as Spence reflected on his actions had a particular poignancy.
Thompson presented an endearing gypsy, successfully gaining the sympathy of the audience, while Spence finished forcefully on a thundering high ‘C’, defiantly optimistic in spite of his character’s plight.
The precursor to this intensely intimate music was the no less intimate “Gesänge des Harfners” of Schubert. Here Spence was much more delicate in his delivery of Goethe’s verse, and brought over the underlying sadness in all three. He was helped again by Johnson, whose lightness of touch with the sparsely textured arpeggios contributed to the emptiness of the second song. A greater optimism pervaded toward the end of the third, but this too ended in a cloud, suddenly wrapped up in Schubert’s perfunctory coda and thrown away.