Toby Spence & Julian Milford at Wigmore Hall

arr. Britten
At the mid hour of night
Gesänge des Harfners, D478-80 [Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, D478; Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, D480; An die Türen will ich schleichen, D479]
Im Abendrot, D799
Adelaide, Op.46; Ich liebe dich, Wo0123
Wiegenlied Op.49/4; Abenddämmerung Op.49/5
Purcell, realised Britten
Evening Hymn
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35

Toby Spence (tenor) & Julian Milford (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 11 October, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Toby Spence. Photograph: © Mitch JenkinsToby Spence made his comeback to Wigmore Hall before an audience that radiated sympathy and support, though not without some apprehension. Even though Spence has appeared both on the concert platform and in the opera house since resuming his career, the surgical treatment had involved the removal of nerve and muscular tissue close to the vocal cords. One was inevitably listening to verify the survival of the voice, which was just about at its zenith when he received the diagnosis. The choice of music as the core of this recital was entirely suited to the situation. Both composer and singer had undergone life-changing experiences, Spence with his illness, Benjamin Britten through travelling to Germany to perform to Holocaust survivors in July 1945. On his return he wasted no time in composing these settings of nine of the most spiritually lacerating of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. There was also a parallel between poet and singer: both had suffered personal crises which led them to profound self-scrutiny.

The Britten cycle was wisely placed at the end of the programme. First there were other matters to attend to: Lieder with a nocturnal theme and a trio of Goethe settings by Schubert. Spence started with a relatively comfortable warm-up piece, one of Britten’s Irish folksong arrangements. He caught just the right note of intimacy, supported by the transparent veil of sound which Britten had created through the chords allotted to the piano. A few soft head notes confirmed the survival of the liquid tone in which his lyric tenor abounded prior to illness. Placing the voice was, however, not cheaply achieved.

In the Harper’s three songs in Schubert’s settings Spence gave hints of on-going anxiety. These are deceptively testing, even without the harmonic paraphernalia which makes Hugo Wolf’s settings of these poems so unrelentingly tense and disturbing. Spence’s singing was inconsistent and one could sense that his voice was not fully obeying his instructions. In the first song both he and Julian Milford dug deep into Schubert’s score to form intelligent interpretative ideas but these were sometimes compromised by faults in Spence’s smoothness of line: individual notes lacked resonance and the execution of upward intervals was sometimes precarious. In ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass’ the reverse was true: eloquent interpretation overcame any shortcomings in the performance. Even if Spence’s breath control was insufficient for him to hold onto the F major cadence (“Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte!”) as written, the scorn felt by the Harper for those divine powers was powerfully expressed in the heavy dotted rhythms. For the repetition of “Dann überlaßt ihr ihn der Pein” Spence brought out from his armoury an exquisite head voice and the ending with its sudden sforzandos in the piano was chilling. He and his partner tried to bring to life ‘An die Türen will ich schleichen’, widely seen by writers on Schubert as a precursor of Winterreise with its striding accompaniment and narrative similarity, but it remained the least successful of the trio.

Julian Milford. Photograph: Abendrot, surely as sublime a depiction of the serenity and rich colour of sunset as exists in the Art Song repertoire, found Spence in immaculate voice and the audience mesmerised. He did not quite find the contrasting clear, golden sound ideally needed for the familiar Adelaide which followed and which can be heard in the celebrated recording by Jussi Björling. Spence’s version needed to shine more to reflect the references to light and colour in the text and to add a degree of buoyancy to what was a surprisingly plain performance. My feeling of disappointment here may have had something to do with Spence’s pronunciation of German. In an age when British singers can perform in the major Western languages without any sign of an English accent it was surprising to hear Spence’s flat vowels (“strahlt” pronounced as if spelt ‘strarhlt’), elongated terminal Es (“werder” instead of ‘werde’) and vowels before a double consonant (“scheemert” instead of ‘schimmert’). Could this be a lingering side-effect of his treatment?

The Brahms pair went from the over-familiar to the rarely-heard. Milford’s playing of the persistent forest murmurs in ‘Abenddämmerung’ made a case for this song to have more frequent outings. Something similar could be said about Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s Evening Hymn. Two geniuses came together here in a rewarding piece for the singer. Spence clearly appreciated the vocal opportunities and he sang the repeated Hallelujahs with real fervour.

The way was thus prepared for the Donne Sonnets which occupied the recital’s second half. Both artists seemed completely at home with the idiom and well enough suited by the musical requirements made of them to produce twenty-five minutes of raw excitement. Donne’s inventive use of the sonnet form released Spence for a recitative-like declamation which he used to convey the intensity of the poet’s feelings about those central problems which obsess him: faith, sin, mortality, judgement, redemption and love. He acted out Donne’s relationship with God as penetratingly as I have heard. From the opening, with those signature crashing chords and the singer’s plunging descent from a high F sharp he showed he had everything that the work requires, powerful, ringing tone especially around the top of the stave, command of soft singing without the whining of which Peter Pears could be accused, relishing of the words, including at speed, manifest understanding of the paradoxes which the poet refers to and possession of a lyrical line for the serenity of ‘Since she whom I lov’d’, the only purely untroubled poem of the collection. Milford excelled in the fast-moving triplets of ‘Batter my heart’, the pounding scales of ‘Thou hast made me’, the pervasive trills of ’What if this present’ and the ceremonial music of ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners blow’ but also in seemingly minor but significant ostinatos such as in ‘O might those sighes and teares’.

Two encores were offered: Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’ and Britten’s realisation of ‘Music for a while’, the latter announced by the singer as being “HIGH!”. This gave every sign of being a sedulously prepared account of the work, with an awareness of the issues of balance between voice and keyboard, which had been convincingly worked out. Only the audibility of the text at rapidity is not susceptible to solution, an error by the composer, surely.

It was difficult to avoid the view of the Donne cycle as a test of the singer’s recovery: they are extremely taxing in vocal range and stamina and demand musicianship and imagination. This performance was, however, rewarding in its own right and also features on October 25 at St Alban’s church in the Sussex village of Frant and on October 23 at the Oxford Lieder Festival (with Sholto Kynoch as accompanist). The immediate future holds for Toby Spence performances of Britten’s War Requiem in Munich conducted by Lorin Maazel. The tenor in that work has music to sing, particularly in the setting of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, which is very similar in certain places to the Donne Sonnets. Evidence of the similarity was to be heard at this Wigmore Hall recital.

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