Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Clayton / Baillieu @ Wigmore Hall, London (online)

19 June 2020

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

From the comfort of her living room, Melanie Eskenazi is once again visiting the Wigmore Hall.

It was the tenor’s turn today, after two sopranos and a baritone, thus showing the balance of the Wigmore’s series of lunchtime recitals, all expertly planned and allowing a huge audience to enjoy the quality on offer. Balance was indeed the general feeling of this recital, from the neat pairing of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder with English folk songs, right down to the pianist’s yellow stripy socks and the tenor’s matching sunny handkerchief.

This really is a golden age of accompanists, and we have had some striking examples of that in these recitals, most notably from Joseph Middleton last week, and now James Baillieu. One of the notable features of this series is the closeness made possible by the onstage cameras, and here we were privileged to follow the intimate partnership between Allan Clayton and his accompanist. This was particularly evident in the set of Britten folk songs, all sung with poise and flair and accompanied with verve; if the playing in ‘The Ploughboy’ was not quite as scintillating as that in the Pears / Britten version, it came pretty close.

Quilter’s ‘Go, Lovely Rose’ was the high point of the other English group, sung and played with the ideal combination of persuasiveness and tenderness. Those final lines about the short durance of the ‘wondrous, sweet and fair’ always succeed in moving the listener, as do those in Vaughan Williams’ setting of ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ – ‘In sweet music is such art / Killing care and grief of heart, fall asleep and hearing, die.’ Allan Clayton sang them with convincing emphasis.

The recital’s main group was the Kerner Lieder, surely one of the most demanding of all song ‘cycles.’ Clayton managed the contrasts between lusty ‘outdoors’ songs and the more hushed, intimate ones very well indeed, although he and I parted company in the case of the wonderful ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorben freundes’ which he took as a mostly jolly drinking song, but which I hear as a melancholy reflection on death and the nature of friendship. It’s an interesting exercise to compare his version with that of Christian Gerhaher or Matthias Goerne.

“This really is a golden age of accompanists, and we have had some striking examples of that in these recitals…”

The finest singing came in the very quiet, reflective songs such as ‘Stille Liebe’ and ‘Alte Laute’ which require absolute control of tone and dynamics, the latter being especially difficult to sustain in terms of mood. Clayton seemed to be questioning the ‘Engel’ at the song’s close as if there were a doubt involved, which is an unusual slant on the line. ‘Erstes Grun’ had no such doubt, and was the perfect example of closeness in singing and accompaniment. Schumann’s instruction for the song is ‘Einfach’ which one might translate as easily, simply or plainly, but you’d never know it from the dirge-like tone which some singers adopt. Clayton and Baillieu took the song at the right matter-of-fact pace, and the piano’s phrases amply suggested the restless melancholy which develops as the music progresses.

This was yet another Wigmore triumph in these dark days; surely these recitals must encourage more people to visit the hall once the restrictions are over – a silver lining if ever there was one.

• The series features a live concert every weekday in June. They can be viewed here: wigmore-hall.org.uk/watch-listen/live-stream

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