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January 10, 2008 7:23 pm
The Wigmore Hall boasts a number of benevolent ghosts. One of them must be Francis Poulenc, who had a long association with the hall, giving recitals with the baritone Pierre Bernac, and no doubt he will be haunting its hallowed stage again in the first half of 2008.
As one of its main themes this year the hall is offering a complete cycle of the Poulenc songs over a series of eight recitals. Other composers will be heard alongside – a surfeit of Poulenc’s heavily perfumed Gallic harmony might easily get up one’s nose – but a lot of rarely performed songs will have been heard by the end.
First up on Wednesday was Simon Keenlyside. It is hard for another baritone to be judged in Poulenc’s mélodies when the singing of Bernac is so indelibly stamped on them, both through his recordings and his well-known guides on how to master French song. No doubt his ghost will be pacing the Wigmore’s corridors, too, notebook in hand, to check how his successors are doing.
Perhaps fortunately for him, Keenlyside is a different kind of singer. He is less intent on the inflexions of the French language – this is where Bernac always scored, especially in Poulenc – but his baritone is of better quality in purely vocal terms. He was in very good voice on Wednesday and there was an impressive range to his singing in the cycle Tel jour, telle nuit. The leap in scale from the eerie hush of “Une ruine coquille vide” to the ringing passion of “Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer” was as big as this music could be asked to take, even if Bernac’s firm grip on detail was missing.
Two other cycles in different languages made up the programme. Schumann’s Dichterliebe, persuasively accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, was sung with warmth and a general sensitivity, and sometimes more – “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen” was among the songs that tapped a more immediate, personal vein.
All of Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad did the same, drawing on every sinew of a voice in its prime to bring to life these poetic stories of a generation doomed by war. We hardly needed to be told afterwards how deeply moving Keenlyside finds them. His singing had already made that clear.
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