It is a sign of Simon Keenlyside’s standing that he can appear twice at the Wigmore Hall in four days, performing the same programme Schubert, Wolf and Brahms on each occasion, and sell out the hall twice.His star is certainly in the ascendant, highlights in the last six months including show-stealing performances as Posa in the Royal Opera House’s revival of Verdi’s Don Carlos, his first Wozzeck (London and Paris), and his latest recording, of Brahms songs (with his Wigmore partner, Malcolm Martineau).
Keenlyside has won most plaudits during his career for his appearances in opera, and while he is also an extremely distinguished recitalist, his greater comfort and conviction in those songs which allowed for the portrayal of distinct characters was perhaps due to his extensive dramatic background. Thus, in the opening Schubert set, ‘Der Tod und das Mdchen’ was schizophrenically chilling, Keenlyside’s characterization of Death made all the more noble by his effortless low D at the end, and ‘Lied des Orpheus, als er in die Hlle ging’ (Song of Orpheus as he entered Hell) tugged at all the heartstrings as Keenlyside journeyed through imploring, lamenting, stirring and triumphant.
In contrast, in ‘Da sie hier gewesen’ and ‘An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht’, while never producing less than ravishingly beautiful singing, he seemed less at ease, his gaze flitting around the hall and his posture shifting nervously throughout these two still, sedate songs. These were then followed by the most thrilling and rapturous singing of the evening, four Wolf settings of poems by Eduard Mrike. The rolling narratives of ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ and ‘Der Jger’ with their fevered Lebenslust contrasted with the eager yet light-hearted professions of love in ‘Lied eines Verliebten’, Keenlyside making Wolf’s sometimes awkward phrases sound effortless.
However, it was in ‘An eine olsharfe’ that Keenlyside and Martineau produced one of the most sublime Lieder performances I have heard, the latter’s expert recreation of the shimmering, ephemeral sound of the wind-harp matching every nuance and expressive colour of Keenlyside’s singing as he used all the vocal skills of a master-singer, summoning up together the Mediterranean scena and the mysterious, transformative power of nature contained in Mrike’s poem.
After this, it seemed almost a let-down to hear Brahms’s setting of the same text after the interval a marvellous song in its own right, but not quite matching the enraptured intensity of Wolf’s version, despite Keenlyside’s performance. His selection of Brahms all revolved around interactions with nature, and included both the well-known and the less-often-heard. Chief among the former were ‘Von ewiger Liebe’, which I enjoyed hearing in a rich lyric baritone after years of mezzo-sopranos (and again, here, Keenlyside subtly yet imaginatively characterized the two lovers) and ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’, in which we heard the full expressive and dynamic power of the voice. But Keenlyside can go from impressively powerful to heartbreakingly tender in an instant, and his pitiful lover in a half-sung, half-crooned ‘Wir wandelten’ was touching in its simplicity.
Keenlyside and Martineau looked backwards for their two encores, the brooding darkness of Schubert’s ‘Waldesnacht (Im Walde)’ being offset by ‘Stille Liebe’ from Schumann’s Kerner-lieder, a perfect choice, although one might dispute the latter’s closing lines, ‘I am pierced with bitter sorrow that you have heard nothing [of my song]‘: we in the audience certainly heard nay, hung on every note from the pair, and came away greatly moved.