Allan Clayton came to town and he brought his best voice with him. Sounding untarnished by the lack of work in lockdown, and with only one item in a cunningly programmed hour requiring him to let rip with the decibels, he skirted any risk of fatigue by husbanding his resources. The tone of his recital may have been subdued but Clayton held the ear with an actor’s aplomb.

Allan Clayton
© Wigmore Hall

Several of the numbers had a sardonic relevance to the year we’re living through. In most of the choices (programmed in tandem with pianist James Baillieu) this undertow of meaning may have been pure happenstance, but surely not the inclusion of Britten’s The Ploughboy, a satirical sketch of political cynicism that for once sounded eerily relatable. The titular tyke, a happy-go-lucky but ambitious fellow, grows up and wheeler-deals his way to the top of government. “I’ll joke, harangue and paragraph, with speeches charm the ear…” It’s a deceptively potent ditty that the two artists tucked in between the more artless strains of Sally in our Alley and I Wonder as I Wander to make a finely rendered trio of the composer’s folk song arrangements.

The pair’s delicious account of Orpheus with his Lute, a song by Vaughan Williams that received its first performance at this venue, was followed by the darker and more startling sound world of Journey’s End, a song by Frank Bridge that narrates the loneliness of a dying man’s final moments. Bridge’s bleak piano part is especially mordant and Baillieu vividly conveyed its oppressive, chromatic restlessness. After that the no-nonsense sweetness of Roger Quilter’s Go, Lovely Rose was a welcome nosegay, especially in Clayton’s honeyed delivery.

James Baillieu
© Wigmore Hall

Tenor and pianist had opened their account with an outstanding performance of Robert Schumann’s complete Kerner settings, Op.35, from 1840. These are Lieder from which singers often cherry-pick a handful of items, but the full dozen heard together make a persuasive cycle in which the poet’s voice emerges strongly. They are intensely personal. Some of the poems are straightforwardly romantic; others are ambiguous, to the extent that even the gender of the poet’s beloved is not always vouchsafed. The eighth song, Stille Liebe (Silent love), is one such: an exquisite poem, sensitively set and ravishingly played and sung, it gave the concert its beating heart. At ground level it concerns a love that cannot speak its name; but such a reductive description of Kerner’s twelve taut lines captures none of the elusive meaning. Schumann’s setting, and the musicians’ interpretation of it, made sense of its enigma by treating the song as an abstract musical poem and trusting it to express pure emotion.

The opening song, Lust der Sturmnacht (Ecstasy on a stormy night), describes the joy of being cosily entwined with one’s beloved while the wild wind rages outside. As a lockdown parable it gave Clayton and Baillieu a telling start to their programme. Later, with Stille Tränen (Silent tears), about a despair that we would recognise today as clinical depression, Clayton found the one song that demanded muscle and sinew. His ardent tenor voice was more than equal to the task. By contrast the farewell “encore”, better described as a bonus track since there was no audience to demand it, was restrained and beautiful, as Liszt’s delicate setting of Goethe’s second Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s nightsong) allowed both artists to bring proceedings to a serene, hushed close.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.