At the Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, Dutch baritone Henk Neven and pianist Hans Eijsackers charmed an enthusiastic audience with a programme of Ravel, Ibert, Schubert and Spanish songs arranged by Norwegian composer Arne Dørumsgaard. The first half of the concert was a beautifully chosen combination of French and Spanish music and texts. Jacques Ibert’s Quatre Chansons de Don Quichotte and Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, which set French texts based on the Spanish romance, were placed either side of Dørumsgaard’s poignant arrangements of traditional Spanish songs.

Ibert’s Quatre Chansons opened the programme, and we immediately knew we were in the hands of a superb pianist. Eijsackers’ subtlety and panache gripped the audience from the first sinuous chords of “Chanson du départ de Don Quichotte”. Neven, infusing his rich tone with dark colour, struck just the right note of grandeur and mystery. He sang the short “Chanson du Duc” with stirring fervour, his wealth of vocal colours brought into play apparently effortlessly. 

Neven could hardly be faulted for sensitivity to affect and text. His luscious legato easily sustained the grandeur and melancholy of Ibert’s “Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte” and Schubert’s “Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt” from Gesänge des Harfners, while Ravel’s light “Chanson Romanesque” was delivered with poignant charm. I especially enjoyed the lively comical songs in the programme, in which Neven clearly showed an aptitude for delicate physical comedy, giving irrepressible panache to the hiccupping drunken knight in Ravel’s “Chanson à boire”. His slight swaying had the audience in ripples of laughter, while never crossing the line into vulgarity: the meat of the comedy was always provided by the flexibility of the voice.

Dørumsgaard’s song settings came as a lovely surprise: poignant and melodious, they provided a timely contrast to the more flamboyant and complex French mélodies. “Con amores, la mi madre” was especially tender and touching. “Pampano verde” was another lovely moment: Neven used the softer colours in his voice sensitively, creating just the right combination of romantic distance and warm desire. Eijsackers gave the gentle Dørumsgaard songs tender attention, allowing the melodies to sing sweetly, infused with feeling, but never mistily sentimental.

The second half was all Schubert: a weighty selection of songs, with an emphasis on melancholy and longing. Even the apparently “happier” songs were rather subdued, complex choices: “Geheimes”, and “Ganymed”. Neven’s direct, approachable delivery prevented this from becoming oppressive to the audience. Instead he managed to create a sense of intimacy, which welcomed the audience into the darker and more ambiguous world of Schubert’s storytelling. Eijsackers exchanged his flamboyance for a more introspective, muted delivery, making much of the internal subtleties of Schubert’s writing. The programme ended with the mighty “Erkönig”. Neven gave excellent characterisation to the three distinct voices - the Erlking, the father and the dying child - the Erlking was deliciously sinister, with a wheedling tone. Eijsackers handled the virtuosically difficult piano part with authority and flair. After an evening in the presence of such consistently intelligent musicianship, the audience left the concert refreshed and enriched.