In the opera house Simon Keenlyside is known for his brilliant characterisations and physical energy. Memories of his bird-like Papageno taking a flying leap to join his brood of young human chicks or his swaggering Don Giovanni jumping perilously around the cemetery gravestones remain vivid.
None of this is of much avail in the recital hall. An understanding of how to dramatise songs is essential, but otherwise the style depends on denying exactly those outward-looking traits that Keenlyside taps to such success in opera.
His last recital at the Wigmore Hall was full of interest, but too strenuously sung – the voice started to give out towards the end after being pushed to such extremes of loud and soft. So it was good to find his return to the Wigmore on Thursday altogether more controlled, without having lost its spark.
A first half devoted to the late romantics was beautifully sung by a lyric baritone now in its prime. Keenlyside is not especially perceptive in his handling of words – it would be hard to cite an instance in his Brahms or Strauss songs where a line of the poetry spoke as a personal utterance – but he responds effectively to the changing atmosphere of the music. His Rachmaninov group was steeped in aromatic vocal colours and gloriously accompanied by Julius Drake.
The second half – all French, two Poulenc groups balanced by Debussy and Ravel – properly reduced the vocal lyricism to a slimmer sound. The words did start to sparkle now, those throwaway lines in Le travail du peintre so typical of Poulenc neatly etched, and although Keenlyside will never be a master of the Gallic poetic muse like Pierre Bernac, nature has given him a voice of more appeal and range. Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée brought all the evening’s strengths together: expressive singing, piano playing of flair, and a character in Don Quixote who positively leapt off the page.
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