Toby Spence & Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall

Purcell, realised Britten
Harmonia Sacra – Three Divine Hymns [Lord, what is man;We sing to Him; An evening hymn]
Les nuits d’été, Op.7
Tel jour telle nuit
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22

Toby Spence (tenor) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 17 February, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was something of a rarefied recital programme and there were some empty seats, an unusual sight at Wigmore Hall these days.

Toby Spence. Photograph: Mitch JenkinsToby Spence and Graham Johnson began with three realisations by Benjamin Britten from Purcell’s “Harmonia Sacra”. The Wigmore Hall’s website promised incorrectly and vaguely three songs from the companion volume “Orpheus Britannicus”. I was quite surprised by the power of Spence’s voice as he launched into the free recitative that opens ‘Lord, what is man’. All his skills were showcased within a few minutes in Dr William Fuller, Lord-Bishop of Lincoln’s forceful, all-too-human poem: intense religious zeal, pious reflection and a climax of almost sensual pleasure were present in the opening section, while. Johnson played Britten’s embellishments, the low trills, and the marcato accents for all they were worth. Spence treated the lyrical second section as a love-song containing both passion and tenderness before embarking on the testing runs of the final “Hallelujah!”.

The same poet’s evening hymn was treated more lightly. The downward steps of the keyboard part suggested relaxation after an active day, followed by confidence in God’s protection for his soul but solemnity was balanced by a hint of playfulness and the “Hallelujah” this time faded gently away as sleep overtook the poet.

I am not accustomed to reporting on an unequal relationship in recitals of Art-Song: in the great masterpieces from Schubert onwards the poetic ideas and narrative developments are expressed through a partnership between singer and pianist. In “Les nuits d’été”, however, the pianist is surely a junior partner, for long stretches offering no great illumination of the texts and outclassed musically by the constant inventiveness of the vocal writing. Perhaps it is merely hindsight, knowing Berlioz’s skills as an orchestrator, to say that the vocal part cries out for orchestral support. The critic and Berlioz specialist David Cairns has described the standard published piano accompaniment as “poor”, “clumsy” and “inauthentic”. There are few recorded versions of the piano version. Though Johnson was not retiring in projecting his part, here it was left largely to the singer to underline the diverse flavours of the work and to signal its musical evolution.

Spence assumed that responsibility willingly, physically as well as musically. In the opening ‘Villanelle’ for example he designed a feeling of unmistakable levity. His buoyant smile suggested that the excursion he was offering to his beloved would be fun, not an intense discourse with nature. He also pointed up the harmonic variations between verses.

The final song ‘L’île inconnue’ marks a return to this joyful flippancy. The poet’s urgent request to the beloved to choose from a range of variably exotic destinations was delivered by Spence with his tongue suitably placed in his cheek. The weight of the piano’s accompaniment to the final lines seemed to run counter to this light-hearted ambience.

Emotional intensity was to be found between these bookends. In ‘Le spectre de la rose’ it was accompanied by severe technical challenges that Spence did not entirely conquer. The soft upward fourths were not smoothly negotiated and he resorted to an excessively open delivery of the high-lying “la fête étoilée”. The ascent to piano head-voice for the word “albâtre” was much more attractive and the ending of the song, in desolation, thoroughly convincing. ‘Sur les lagunes’ was given a particularly compelling performance. It opens with much freer declamation. Then, in a rare influential intervention by the pianist, his throbbing chords introduce a weight and a disciplined structure as nature seems to mourn, only for the tenor’s delirium to re-assert itself in the last stanza, culminating in a piercing repetition of his lament “Ah! sans amour, s’en aller sur la mer”.

The artists showed a common understanding of the quasi-rondo structure of ‘Absence’. Spence’s final “reviens, reviens” was a subtle variation on the earlier statements of the plea. ‘Au cimetière’ was sensuous enough, though Spence’s high notes were a fraction watery. The opening-out into dance rhythms at the appearance of the ghost was another turning of a corner deftly managed.

Graham JohnsonThe second half, beginning with the Poulenc, got off to an uncertain start, with Spence stopping after only a few bars. There were no hitches second time round. I make no claim to understanding the bulk of Eluard’s poems with their lack of punctuation and bizarre juxtapositions. Only the first and last communicated verbally to me, the latter undoubtedly a heartfelt tribute to the poet’s wife. The other settings seemed either to be part of a deliberate structure of contrast or to represent certain conventional types of song.

The subdued, minor-key sadness of ‘Une ruine coquille vide’ is followed by the vivacity of ‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu’. ‘Une roulotte couverte’ resembles one of those depictions of a dead landscape favoured by some composers, ‘A toutes brides’ a depiction of a galloping horse, ‘Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer’ a flowing serenade. ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche’ was the perfect prelude to that heartfelt finale, depicting the frenzied yet frustrating passion which is the precise opposite of the fulfilling tranquillity the poet experiences with his wife. Comprehend them or not, Spence and Johnson gave virtuoso performances of these songs.

Throughout the evening the tenor showed himself capable of changing vocal gear to suit the different composers and their works. He brightened his tone for Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. The tendency to open his top notes reappeared on occasions but the most conspicuous feature of the performance was how it reminded that these songs were written with the voice of Peter Pears foremost in Britten’s mind. This was particularly noticeable in the second song ‘Veggio co’bei vostri occhi’, whose theme is that the poet is an incomplete person without his partner. For much of the time the tenor is required to sing softly around the top of the stave and to deliver the kind of sound in which Pears specialised, indeed the opening note is high up in that very area, as so often happens in Britten’s settings. If this sounds no more than a vocal exercise, then the ending of the song is clearly a sincere expression of love, leaving no doubt of the song’s inspiration.

Both artists focused intently on reflecting the changing moods of the cycle. ‘A che piu debb’i’o mai’ has a Rossinian zest, well caught by singer and pianist. ‘Spirto ben nato’, the concluding song, is a noble tribute to the beloved, introduced by a solemn prelude and begun by unaccompanied voice. The climax, achieved by a union between voice and instrument and the final soft section, resolving onto a D major chord, brought the relationship between the two lovers vividly before our eyes.

The encores were Britten’s rarely performed realisation of Purcell’s “Music for a while” and Poulenc’s “Bleuet”.

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