It would be hard to imagine a more auspicious start to 2020. The new reviewing cycle has begun with this 5-star beauty from a stellar quartet of young performers, an evening so good that even the encore was inspired. Those spare filaments of accompaniment that punctuate Benjamin Britten’s setting of I Wonder as I Wander were tweaked to include the cherubic virtuosi Sean Shibe (guitar) and Timothy Ridout (viola) while grizzled thirty-somethings Allan Clayton and James Baillieu dispatched the rest of it.

Allan Clayton © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Allan Clayton
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

London’s Wigmore Hall is honouring Britten this season in a series that has already produced some red-letter events. Clayton and Baillieu are the backbone for concerts that showcase the composer’s connections with the Marylebone venue, but artistic director John Gilhooly has been team-building around them and brought in some exciting newer talents as counterweights. As this winter warmer proved, it’s a winning formula.

Neither Shibe nor Ridout is a tyro, mind, and contributions by both of them were subtle and intense. The Scottish guitarist carried half the concert, either alone or as Clayton’s accompanist in the short Dowland sequence that prefaced accounts of Britten’s published music for voice and guitar. He wore a mock-Tudor doublet and starched ruff, whether as a Method approach to finding the mood or as a fashion statement it’s hard to say, but his touch upon the instrument felt indefinably modern, marked by a strange blend of restraint and naked emotion.

Sean Shibe © Kaupo Kikkas
Sean Shibe
© Kaupo Kikkas

Shibe’s playing in Britten’s music was more expressive than any guitarist I’ve heard since Julian Bream, the artist for whom the composer composed. In the Preludium by Dowland that opened the concert he projected delicacy and a variety of fragrances that charmed the ear; then when Clayton joined him for Come again, sweet love they breathed as one with the shared empathy of musical intimates.

The charismatic Clayton shrugged off the technical challenges of Songs from the Chinese, a collection of idiosyncratic settings that end on the shivering howl of “Alas for the unicorn” (words that have a patina of irony today), although it was in the penultimate number, Depression, that the tenor emboldened his artistry by adopting a harrowingly naked tone to convey despair. As for the Second Lute Song from Gloriana, the performance all but demanded a new production to accommodate an A. Clayton Earl of Essex.

Ridout’s poised and variegated account of Britten’s Lachrymae (Reflections on a Song of John Dowland) preceded the interval; Shibe’s superb panache in the Nocturnal after John Dowland followed it and rounded off the concert’s BB-JD nexus. Both performances had a euphoric quality as the two artists teased out the elusive wonder in their respective works.

Passing swiftly over the brief and justifiably neglected Ronald Duncan triptych This Way to the Tomb, we arrived at the evening’s climactic event: a performance of Winter Words by Clayton and Baillieu that sidestepped the work’s latent preciosity with a reading of robust beauty. The tenor man told Thomas Hardy’s familiar verses with such probing honesty that I heard newness in all of them.

*****