Reviewing several pieces of music over the space of a few days often throws up some interesting juxtapositions, but I don't think I have ever found myself reviewing the same singer before twice in two nights, in entirely contrasting repertoire. Having only just made it back to Suffolk after a long and rain-spattered Sunday night at Garsington for Mozart's Idomeneo, I found myself once more sitting before Toby Spence on Monday: this time at Snape Maltings, singing the third of a series of Aldeburgh Festival evenings devoted to Britten and Tippett.
Opening with Britten's On This Island series, Spence was at his best for the beautiful Nocturne, his excellent projection and control creating a sound both langourous and fresh. By then, Spence was allowing himself to open up into a more freely expressive style which paid dividends after a slightly tense start. While navigating Britten's melodies skilfully, Spence isn't quite telling the story of each song or presenting them in a fully imagined world yet, but he gives the impression that this could come – and be interesting – in time.
Tippett's Piano Sonata no. 4, played by Steven Osborne with a gentle power unafraid of stern emphasis where needed, but keeping smooth tone, was full of dancing notes after a warm, inviting opening. However, Tippett's rambling Boyhood's End, with its lengthy episodic structure and complicated prose, didn't come off well, as words were often lost and Spence's lack of placing the song in its own reality began to tell. With some wonderful lyricism in certain passages from Spence, I concluded that part of that song was indeed lovely; but other passages simply sounded difficult to sing, and even more difficult to enjoy.
After the interval, Britten's settings of John Donne's Holy Sonnets blazed forth with passion and real presence. Britten's superb for facility for setting words with utter clarity was an especial relief after the comparative incoherence of the Tippett, and O my blacke Soule! was resplendent with vigour and charisma, Spence truly inhabiting the piece in thought as well as deed. Batter my heart, three person'd God had an impressive urgency, but as the songs progressed, the philosophical journey sadly did not, with Oh, to vex me and What if this present not taking us anywhere interesting. Spence can convey tenderness and anger by turns, but next needs to join things up. At the round earth's imagined corners had a nice sense of invocation, with Britten's bracing, bitter, head-opening harmonies sounding superb. Death, be not proud made for a masterly finish, sung by Spence with fantastic control, and with beautifully clear enunciation at last which really showed us how sensitive Britten can be to the texture of words in our mouths.
We finished with Tippett's String Quartet no. 5, whose general air of dissonance and difficulty sounded almost stubbornly deliberate. Some of its fervent, strangulated tension I rather enjoyed – you can imagine it being ideal for a Hitchcock murder scene – but its determination to shoulder you out of any feeling of relaxation or comfort becomes increasingly unfriendly. In its more yearning, dreamy moments, it offered a little respite, only to revert to "nails down a blackboard" with vengeful and capricious energy. Still, it was extraordinarily determined and skilful in both its conception and its execution by the Heath Quartet.
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