Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Neven / Baillieu @ Wigmore Hall, London

27 September 2015

Two recitals from Florian Boesch began the Wigmore’s mammoth survey of Schubert’s complete songs, and this third in the series brought a very obvious contrast in style and interpretation. Where Boesch is the ultimate in terms of dramatic performance, wringing every last ounce out of the phrases and sometimes loading words with almost more than they can bear, Henk Neven’s manner and technique are much more in the gentle, sometimes almost laconic mould. Both baritones possess beautiful voices, but Boesch is far more inclined to make the words tell, sometimes at the expense of a legato line, whereas Neven prefers the smooth, unbroken elegance of a phrase to the occasional sacrifice of tonal beauty in the service of emphasis.

The recital began with a confident performance of what is generally seen as Schubert’s first ‘true’ song, his setting of Schiller’s ‘Der Jüngling am Bache,’ which contains so much of the composer’s characteristic sense of longing and that lilting, flowing movement we know so well that it is astonishing to think that he wrote it when only 15. Neven and James Baillieu’s collaboration and sense of Schubertian style were unerring here, and came into even sharper focus in ‘Augenlied,’ the exquisite Mayrhofer setting which first piqued the interest of Johann Vogl, pronouncing it to be “Not bad.”

In a full survey of Schubert’s songs, someone had to perform all 26 verses of ‘Der Taucher’ and it fell to Neven and Baillieu; in some ways, it’s as much a tour de force for the pianist as for the singer, given how much he has to do to suggest those turbulent waters, about which we hear so often. Baillieu negotiated the challenging phrases with aplomb, especially the depiction of the final doomed dive, and Neven produced suitably heroic tone at such moments as the description of the emergence of the hapless young squire and some very fine verbal emphasis in phrases like ‘Und begrüsste das himmlische Licht.’ At the risk of being accused of being Polonius-like, however, one has to say that it’s a bit too long.

The highlight of the recital’s second half was a finely judged ‘Ganymed’ with especially gripping playing from Baillieu in the final section, the singer’s ecstatic ‘Ich komm, ich komme! / Ach wohin?’ echoed in the anxious phrasing of the piano. By the time the jolly, carefree ‘Fischerweise’ closed the programme, Neven was sounding a little tired, but recovered to give a winning performance of the single encore, the sublime ‘Wandrers Nachtlied.’

The series continues with recitals from Sarah Connolly and Graham Johnson on October 14th, and Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz on October 29th. There’s also a 3 part Study Group beginning on October 21st, hosted by the composer Julian Philips.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.

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