I rarely listen to the radio, since I’m one of those who just can’t stomach the chirpy populism which seems to be rife thereon (as in, “That was Vivaldi, playing there just fer yew, and up from number thirty six in the classical charts”) but a few days ago, I happened to turn on the car radio and heard a voice which made me gasp — not a frequent occurrence. It turned out to be Henk Neven, and I made a mental note to request his next recital. On Tuesday, who should be replacing Robert Holl at the Wigmore but young Mr Neven, so I approached this concert with eager anticipation. I was not disappointed, and would say that the only negatives in the evening were the somewhat heavy-on-the-hearty programme, and the fact that Roger Vignoles really needs to take Mr Neven aside for a little sartorial advice.
The selection of songs from Myrten revealed the singer’s confidence, stylish phrasing and ability to characterize a narrative — it’s quite unnerving to hear him sing lieder such as ‘Freisinn’ and ‘Hauptmanns Weib’ because he sounds so like Fischer-Dieskau in this music; that’s no slur of course, since he can’t help having a beautifully coloured, flexible voice. There was no mistaking his individuality, however, in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ and ‘Zum Schluss,’ both sung with quiet, understated ardour, the closing ‘Schwester, Braut!’ just lingered over enough to be touching, yet not so as to overdo the sentiment.
The Heine group included a lustily performed ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ and a rather too muted ‘Dein Angesicht’ whilst Musorgsky’s ‘Songs and dances of Death’ — a very brave choice — were outstandingly presented in terms of drama, from the cruel deception of Death’s lullaby in the first song, to the bravado of the final one, ‘The Field Marshal’ — a neat pairing with the Schumann. Liszt’s ‘Es muss ein Wünderbares sein’ showed that even so well known a song can be given a freshness by a singer such as this one, alert to every nuance of the text yet never overdoing lines such as ‘Ums Lieben zweier Seelen.’
Roger Vignoles, as always, was the most sympathetic and collaborative accompanist, no mean feat given that he was playing for someone whom he did not, presumably, know very well, and a partly different programme to the one scheduled. Henk Neven is clearly a singer determined to go his own way — he could so easily have delighted us with an easy-going programme, but he chose to challenge himself, and us. Even the encore was unexpected — everyone knows Goethe’s ‘Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’ but it was a surprise not to be hearing Schubert’s version of it. Mr Neven returns to the hall on April 4th with a similarly ambitious programme, this time featuring some of the most demanding of Schubert’s works; expect to book early.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org