Monday evening’s recital at the Wigmore Hall was underscored by the sound of arrows missing targets. Holding a ‘Learning Gala Concert’ to highlight the educational outreach work of the Wigmore is commendable, but, apart from a short film at the beginning, the connection between the programme (a collection of songs loosely based on the theme of ‘Home, sweet home’) and the Wigmore’s education work was flimsy. None of the beneficiaries of the education programme were performing, and the link between the artists appearing – soprano Ailish Tynan, baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist Iain Burnside – and the outreach work was unclear.
Themed concerts can work well, but, in this case, the material felt like a collection of individually beautiful – but mismatched – garments hanging in a wardrobe. What the combination of these three artists called for was either some serious song-cycles that matched the two voices (individually and paired) and sensitive accompaniment, or a much more lighthearted cabaret collation; it was, sadly, neither. The Lieder-heavy first half (Cornelius, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms) contained some sore thumbs (parlour songs by Cowen and Hely-Hutchinson, as well as a hauntingly formless Ives piece and a couple of English romantic songs by Elgar and Somervell). The second half, consisting of more 20th-century material, worked better and felt lighter, but it was still somewhat weighed down by Schumann and Brahms, and the need to close with Henry Bishop’s uninspiring-yet-obvious Home! Sweet Home! The exigencies of the programming also meant that some of the songs were not in the singers’ repertoires, and the necessity to sing these from score invited comparison in presentation between the repertoire works sung with fluidity – the drama of their text communicated in look and gesture – and those where the anchor of reading from the score caused all of this to be lost.
Nevertheless, the individual performances were of a high standard. Lieder are Appl’s forte, and here he did not disappoint, his intuitive understanding of the texts, and ability to portray them in tone, volume and gesture, shone through in Schubert’s Der Einsame and Der Wanderer an den Mond as well as in Brahms’ O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück. He seemed less comfortable, however, with Frederic Cowen’s parlour song Stay at home, the less formal, entertaining-the-family idiom needed for this escaping him, as did the more Broadway-style required for My House from Bernstein’s musical Peter Pan. His delivery of Charles Ives’ songs (Tom sails away and The Children’s Hour) was spot on, though, summoning perfectly the edgy disquiet inherent in both.
Tynan’s strong, sweet voice is always a pleasure to listen to, and it was ideal for Elgar’s Pleading, where her control of dynamic demonstrated complete sensitivity to the text. Indeed, this iron control was present in many of her numbers, making for intensity in Brahms’ Abendregen and some finely tuned drama in the recitative nature of Geoffrey Bush’s setting of Virginia Woolf’s prose, Cuisine Provençale. Tynan was at her dramatic best, though, in the two contemporary songs, Seóirse Bodley’s busy, almost-Mozartian A Call and Libby Larsen’s witty Pregnant, and her licensed hamming up of the decorations in Balfe’s I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls (accompanied, with tongue-in-cheek poise by Iain Burnside) was a joy.
The duet items were delightful, and demonstrated how well-matched the two voices are, with Cornelius’ Scheiden und Meiden allowing both of them some ringing ‘big voice’ moments. It is to be hoped that the pair work up a more musically coordinated programme for the future.