It is rare that one leaves a Liederabend with little but positive things to say. So much can go wrong in a métier that is in so many ways a study in miniatures. With Lieder, everything is distilled down to a bare minimum. Each song is a world in itself, and in a few minutes it is over and has either resonated with the audience, or not. Unlike with the symphony or the opera, there is nothing to dress art song in: there are no flashy costumes, seas of bows, or conductors to be hypnotized by. The singer and pianist, unadorned, must invite the listeners into their world of song and poetry and captivate them completely. The audience that braved the cold last night and made it to the Konzerthaus was a fortunate one. Simon Keenlyside and Graham Johnson gave a masterful, intimate and atmospheric rendition of numerous lesser-known art song masterpieces.

Johnson, jumping in at the last moment for an indisposed Malcolm Martineau, was in peak form throughout the evening, playing with rarely paralleled delicacy and finesse as well as his characteristic clarity of sound and purpose. Keenlyside used every nuance available in his impressive vocal repertoire to color, charm and enliven. And though their repertoire choices should have felt taxing for the audience, the evening seemed to fly by, a tribute to how absolutely engaging and beautiful their performance was.

Schoenberg’s early composition Erwartung Op. 2 no. 1 opened the program. The text by Richard Dehmel is a study in color/mood juxtaposition, with numerous mentions of “meergrün” and “rot”. The heavily layered text was shaded beautifully by both; Keenlyside’s gorgeously pale color on the final “bleiche Frauenhand” complemented by Johnson’s slender, delicate postlude. A pupil of Schoenberg’s, Hanns Eisler, contributed the next set of songs, many from the Hollywood Songbook of 1942/43. Eisler is a fascinating figure both in terms of his person and his music. He wrote everything, from film music to twelve-tone compositions and back, and was not only driven out of Germany by the Nazis in the 30s (his father was Jewish) but also deported from America in 1948 during the McCarthy era. The songs chosen out of the Hollywood Songbook range from settings of dry Bertolt Brecht proverbs (Spruch 1939 “In den finsteren Zeiten”; Spruch 1942 “Das ist nun alles”) to Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann, which art song lovers will recognize as the same text which opens “In der Fremde” from Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis. The texts, terse, uncompromising, were delivered with unapologetic directness by Keenlyside and wonderful sensitivity by Johnson, and were incredibly well received.

Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake shared the frankness of the Eisler set, dressed in the special world of sound that we identify with Britten. Here Johnson, whose knowledge and understanding of Britten is unparalleled, shone most brightly. His fingers rippled through “The Chimney-sweeper”, delved into the depths of the harmonic world in “A Poison Tree” and masterfully delivered up “The Tyger”. Keenlyside was no less masterful in his shadings throughout the set. “A Poison Tree” featured some very risky pianissimi on the word “grow” and a crescendo into fortissimo on “soft deceitful wiles”. This perfectly underscored the deceitfulness of the angry protagonist through the dichotomy between text and music. His breathless “Tyger, Tyger!” was nearly whispered, giving urgency to Blake’s reflection on the mechanisms of industrialization.

Instead of the planned set of Strauss, the pair swapped in an assortment of beautiful Hugo Wolf songs from the Mörike and Goethe collections to open the second half. “Denk’ es, o Seele!”, “Um Mitternacht”, “Wie sollt’ ich heiter bleiben”, “Auf eine Christblume II”, “Blumengruβ” and “Lied eines Verliebten” featured moments of wonderful delicacy and charm. More obscure Schubert (“Alinde”, “Der Wanderer”: Wie deutlich des Mondes Licht”, “Verklärung”) and Brahms Lieder (“Verzagen”, “Über die Heide”, “Nachtigallen schwingen”) rounded out the evening, but it took four more Schubert offerings in the form of encores before the pair were allowed to quit the stage.

I found it incredibly inspiring that even though rehearsal time was no doubt limited (leading to a few less-than-completely unified moments), there was not a single point in time where either was not delivering the text and music with absolute integrity and purpose. Keenlyside and Johnson made a difficult program seem easy to perform and even easier to listen to despite decidedly challenging circumstances: the mark of consummate artists.