In this programme of song from French, British and German composers, one might have picked holes in minor elements, but overall the combination of baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside and pianist Malcolm Martineau proved formidable in tackling three song cycles in which art, poetry and nature took centre stage.
Poulenc’s Le travail du peinture of 1956, set to the poetry of Paul Éluard, explores seven painters with each song’s tone befitting the style and character of the respective artist. The cycle feels like one huge explosion of creativity in its own right, and Keenlyside’s style of performance captured this in a very astute way. The songs are technically very demanding, and Keenlyside conveyed the sense of challenge by suggesting that the extent of the chaos and creativity that these artists unleashed was only just exceeded by his ability to control such elements in his performance.
This idea came across most clearly in the ‘bombastic’ Paul Klee, although Pablo Picasso, which begins the cycle, enabled him to assert his strong expansive baritone to the full, while also allowing his low notes to shine. The expression ‘Une main pourquoi pas une second main’ felt like a particularly monumental gesture, while in George Braque ‘Toute question, toute response’ was particularly well phrased. In Juan Gris Keenlyside managed to produce a sound that felt heavy, in terms of possessing gravitas, but never leaden.
Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake Op. 74 of 1965 is the only song cycle the composer wrote for a baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau). Both Keenlyside and Martineau seemed to get right inside the piece. For example, in A Poison Tree Britten takes what is a single line in the poem, ‘my wrath did grow’, and intersperses it throughout the song, and with each repetition Keenlyside conveyed a sense of his anger increasingly taking hold. Martineau also caught the sense of ‘ripple’ at the end of The Tyger perfectly so he could then launch into the more fierce start to Proverb V, which refers to ‘The tygers of wrath’ and thus provides both a link and a contrast to what we have just heard.
There were a few relatively weaker notes, and Keenlyside’s frequent use of a virtual falsetto was perfect on some occasions in capturing a sense of lightness and sensitivity, but on others felt just a little too deliberate. Similarly, his deep expressiveness occasionally spilt over into cliché as he reached to touch the piano just a few too many times. None of this, however, should detract from the fact that for the vast majority of the evening he sounded extremely good. The second half of the programme was taken up by Schumann’s Kerner Lieder Op. 35 of 1840, and the variation that he brought to the disparate songs was particularly impressive, whether we are talking about the tender Erstes Grün, which felt particularly heartfelt and thoughtful, or the strongly rhythmic Wanderlied, in which Keenlyside really drew out the softer tone in the section commencing ‘Da grüssen ihn Vögel’.
The final three songs may well have been the highlight. Keenlyside began the first of these, Stille Tränen, by clutching the piano with both hands in a gesture that certainly did work, before internalising the song to a remarkable degree. In this way, with his head bowed just a little there was a total sense in which he was lost in the song’s emotions. Wer machte dich so krank? that followed was sung just a shade more outwardly, but the fragility he conveyed felt almost tangible, while the sensitivity he applied to the final Alte laute made the audience feel just how much he loved the creation. The demands placed on Keenlyside by all three cycles must have made it an exhausting sing, but he and Martineau still contributed two encores, Schubert’s Der Einsame and Der Jüngling an der Quelle.