Britten: Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo; Hugo Wolf: Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo; Shostakovich: Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonaroti, op. 145

John Tomlinson (bass) and David Owen Norris (piano)

St. John's, Smith Square, 16 March 2010 5 stars

St PietaThis Michelangelo themed recital by bass Sir John Tomlinson and pianist David Owen Norris was a stage performance at its most noble and, at the same time, it was most enjoyable.

Tomlinson seemed to be treating each of the three song cycles as mini operas, although – in spite of three different languages in the three cycles – describing the event as an evening of opera in three acts might also be appropriate. Tomlinson wore a costume which separated the drama on stage from the spectators in the auditorium. His props were a table and a chair, which he used in a variety of ways. His diction was crystal clear, whether in Italian (Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo), in German (Hugo Wolf's Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo) or in Russian (Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonaroti, op. 145). His acting was full of nuances, always respecting as well as interpreting text and music. I followed the scores for the Britten and Wolf cycles: exceptionally for a song recital (or, perhaps, for any recital), all markings by the composers were faithfully followed and communicated to the audience with spell-binding charisma. Tomlinson’s vocal control – whether over long notes, passionate outbursts or hushed pianissimos – was astonishing.

Britten composed his Michelangelo sonnets for a tenor voice. However, with the permission of the Britten Foundation David Owen Norris has transposed the music down by an interval of a fourth – although the third song, Veggio co' bei vostri occhi (Sonetto XXX), goes a fifth lower – and has made certain adjustments to the piano part. We witnessed the world premiere of this new bass version; without prior knowledge it would have been hard to tell that Britten wanted anything else but a bass voice for his Michelangelo sonnets.

During the Wolf cycle it could have been easy to imagine that we were in Wagner's territory. The German language and the title of the second poem – Alles endet, was entstehet (All must end that has beginning) – coupled with Tomlinson's decade as a great Wotan reminded one of Wagner. And, of course, Wolf was a contemporary of Wagner. However, thanks to Tomlinson's consummate skills, we stayed with Michelangelo's reminiscing.

In the performance of the Shostakovich suite we witnessed the meetings of three great minds: Michelangelo, Shostakovich and – on the basis of his performance – Sir John Tomlinson.

Composed in 1974, during the last year of his life, Shostakovich's choice of eleven of Michelangelo poems reveal just as much about the composer as about Michelangelo. Some of the poems elaborate on universal themes (which include Truth, Morning, Love, Separation, Night, Death and Immortality). However, there is reference to the work of the artist (Creativity), furthermore three of the songs (Nos. 5 -7; Anger, Dante, To the Exile) are textually linked and show the artist's frustration with isolation. Thankfully, Tomlinson's portrayal of this timeless and reoccurring tragedy was fully appreciated by his audience: you could have heard a pin drop, such was the silence and full focus on this deeply moving and revealing performance.

Responding to the audience's ovation, on conclusion of the three cycles Tomlinson took off his Michelangelo jacket, faced the audience directly and gave two encores: 'Whither must I wonder' from Vaughan William's The Songs of Travel and an English Victorian ballade.

Pianist David Owen Norris gave superb support. The teamwork between Tomlinson and Norris was that between two immensely intelligent and caring artists. I did not always understand Norris' shaping of certain musical phrases but they were clearly carefully constructed.

It was a shame that the programme notes did not contain any notes about the actual programme. Admittedly the song texts took up a lot of space, but such repertoire would merit at least a few words.

I was overjoyed by this concert and even burst into tears of joy. Judging by the audience’s response, my reaction was justified. Thank you, Sir John!

By Agnes Kory

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