December 19, 2013 5:40 pm

Simon Keenlyside, Barbican, London – review

The baritone’s recital was a rewarding antidote to Christmas jollity

It can be refreshing to find arts events that are not loaded down with Christmas tinsel at this time of year, though not many are as tough a nut to crack as this one. When he bounded back on to the stage for his encores, Simon Keenlyside joked about giving the audience a “suicidal evening”, which raised the first (and only) laugh they were going to get.

This was a recital planned with Scrooge looking over his shoulder. It started with Schoenberg and a clutch of songs by Hanns Eisler (short, sharp, gritty), then Britten’s profoundly dark cycle of William Blake settings, before heading into some lesser-known Wolf, Schubert and Brahms (and that was after two late changes of programme had lightened things up a bit).


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Put all this into the Barbican, as welcoming a venue for a solo recitalist as an aircraft hangar, and only a singer of Keenlyside’s strength of personality could keep the audience engaged. Most important, he sings the poetry as if every word matters, whether in English or German, and with Malcolm Martineau as the subtlest of accompanists, there was plenty of light and shade among the prevailing gloom.

After Schoenberg’s late romantic “Erwartung”, a group of nine Eisler songs, each a nugget of compression, demanded all of Keenlyside’s skill to put across their meaning. Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake is the least loved of his song-cycles and Keenlyside took the hard route to its heart, wrestling with extremes of volume (including a sometimes toneless head voice) and snatching ever more frequent breaths. But this was also a performance of exceptional intensity: has “A Poison Tree” ever seethed with more anger, or “Endless Night” fought its way to a more anguished conclusion?

After the interval a different Keenlyside took the stage, relaxed, almost easy-going. His proud baritone, still in its prime, flowed more easily here, bringing lyrical beauty to his selection of songs by Wolf, Schubert and Brahms without losing any depth of meaning. He says he contemplated going head-to-head with Susan Boyle and giving us “Ave Maria” as an encore, but more Wolf and Schubert prevailed – a seriously rewarding evening to the last.

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