It was very interesting to hear Simon Keenlyside perform Schumann's Dichterliebe so soon after Thomas Hampson's inclusion of the same work on his recent programme in the same hall.
Although both men are fine lyric baritones regularly billed on the rosters of the worlds greatest opera houses, their respective interpretations could not have been more different. While Hampson's was mellifluous, characterised by a suavity and, his perfect diction notwithstanding, phrased as much in the service of the composer as of the poet, Keenlyside's was far more edgy, urgent and text-driven.
This urgency came partly from Keenlyside and Martineau's choice to perform every single song attacca after the preceding song (marked in the score only between the fist and second songs), from some rubati which bordered on the extreme, and from Keenlyside's platform manner. Unlike his appearances in opera, in which he is never less than a convincing actor, Keenlyside appears to feel the exposure on the stage acutely during recitals, and comes across as extremely self-conscious. The constant gripping and releasing of the piano, the pacing, putting of his hands in his pockets, and rising on tip-toe are not ideal in a lieder recital, when all one wants is to concentrate on the singing and the interpretation. One option for the audience member is to follow the text closely, but in so doing, the other rather distinctive elements of his approach were thrown into sharp relief.
The tempo of 'Ich grolle nicht' was pulled about to such an extent that I am not sure it could still be considered rubato – more an absolutely manifest change of speed for a few bars, and then back again. This song climaxed thrillingly, replete with a top A, but I did not feel it was an entirely successful rendition of this amazing dramatic gem from Schumann's output, as Martineau and Keenlyside's approach to the rest of it was rather serene. The decision to go straight into 'Und wüssten's die Blumen' without so much as a comma served the performers very well in that it prevented the audience from unwrapping sweets, having a cough and shuffling their feet. But from an audience point of view, we would have at least benefited from a few seconds to collect ourselves after such strong singing and intense emotion in the closing bars of the preceding song.
Keenlyside gave a very detailed reading of the text. I almost found it too detailed and interventionist in parts, as if he had thought too much about it. The comma he meticulously observed after the word 'doch' in the last line of the fourth song, 'doch wenn du sprichst: ich liebe dich! So muss ich weinen bitterlich', which is not even in the poem, was a case in point. I did wonder if he would deliver his native language in the same way once we got to it later in the programme, and sure enough, he did not. To my mind, he would do well to let his excellent German flow as naturally.
Vocally, the Schumann was the least successful part of the programme because of all the soft singing Keenlyside attempted. I don't feel he has ever resolved this aspect of his technical arsenal to quite the same high standard as the rest of his singing. The voice he adopts when singing piano is often without vibrato and as such, does not integrate into the line in the way it should, and leads to intonation problems. That aside, he was in his usual glorious voice, and he rounded off the cycle with a tremendous account of 'Die alten, bösen Lieder'. He was supported well by Martineau, who was an accompanist of great sensitivity throughout, but his preludes and postludes to those songs that have them were laced with the same rubato that threatened to derail 'Ich grolle nicht' and the results, to my mind, came across as slightly affected.
The Six Songs from George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad were given a very fine account, opening with a classily honed performance of 'Lovliest of trees'. 'Look not in my eyes' was marvelously heroic, while 'The lads in their hundreds' was beautifully artless, the text of this chilling poem packing a huge emotional punch in Keenlyside's straight-forward delivery of Butterworth's almost folk song-like setting. 'Is my team ploughing' revisited the piano singing of parts of the Schumann but was entirely appropriate in this piece, perfectly characterizing the disembodied voice of the dead lad and contrasting brilliantly with the intervening verses in which Keenlyside's rich voice was shown to great advantage.
The real highlight of the evening came with the group of Poulenc songs which received an absolutely first class performance. Keenlyside appeared to have relaxed sufficiently to bring some of his dramatic prowess over from the operatic stage, and he really appeared to get into the minds of the characters in the poems, aided by his excellent French. This applied equally to esoteric texts such as Apollinaire's 'Un poème' and those with a more literal, obvious meaning like Desnos's 'Le disparu'. 'Une herbe pauvre' was an incredible microcosm of emotion, traversing pity, delight, wonderment, delectation and dashed hope in its seven lines. But he saved the best until last, delivering a thrillingly intense performance of 'Nous avons fait la nuit', loaded with erotic atmosphere.
Although I will always think of Keenlyside as more of an opera singer than a recitalist, his Poulenc group will remain in my memory as one of the best song-group performances I have heard.
By John Woods