It’s almost three years since we first reviewed the baritone Henk Neven, and it’s a real pleasure to hear how he has fulfilled the promise of that recital. You’ll still get a shock when you first hear him, because he sounds so much like a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – hardly a disadvantage, and it’s obvious that his supple, finely coloured voice is a natural asset rather than an imposed style. He is no ‘school of’ singer, however, since he has very clear ideas about the music and is very individual in his phrasing and use of rubato. For this recital of Wolf and Mahler he was accompanied by his fellow Dutch artist, Hans Eijsackers, in what is clearly shaping up to be a remarkable collaboration.
Wolf regarded his Italian songs as “…the most original and artistically the most perfect of all my things” and these exquisite miniatures were ideal for Neven’s poetic, introspective singing and Eijsackers’ always-attentive playing. ‘Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt’ was sung with expansive tone, elegant phrasing and ardent expression, the final ‘Er schuf die Schönheit und dein Angesicht’ revealing a beautifully spun legato line. ‘Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen’ demands much from both singer and pianist, and you could hardly ask for more than they gave it here, the very demanding closing phrase sung with understated fervour.
The romantic and melancholy tone of most of the first group – including a very fine version of the nearest thing by Wolf to a ‘popular’ or ‘hackneyed’ song, ‘Benedeit die sel’ge Mutter,’ was maintained in the Mahler songs. Just about every baritone has a try at ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ but not many succeed in capturing its blend of regret and defiance as Neven did here. The closing ‘Urlicht’ could perhaps have had a little more variety of nuance in one or two phrases, but the closing ‘das ewig selig Leben!’ was beautifully sustained. Eijsackers proved the ideal partner for this dense, allusive, spiritual music.
You can hear this recital on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 12th October at 1pm, and Henk Neven next appears at the Wigmore Hall on May 29th 2015, when he will be partnered with Imogen Cooper in a recital of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Mahler.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.