Centered around the later, lesser-known composers of art song, tonight’s programme started with a first half of melancholy Hugo Wolf Lieder. Both Schubert and Schumann wrote settings of Goethe’s unhappy Harfenspieler, but evidently Wolf was unsatisfied, as, on principle, he avoided setting texts which he thought had been successfully treated before. Wolf of course has the advantage of post-Wagnerian harmony and the sumptuous opening sequence to “Harfenspieler I” was an example of this. Simon Keenlyside paced around the stage as the solitary wanderer and utilised a great variety of tone to portray the tormented text, including some interesting use of a very straight, almost tortured tone rarely heard in song recitals.

Simon Keenlyside © Uwe Arens
Simon Keenlyside
© Uwe Arens

“Wie sollt ich heiter bleiben” had a lovely naturalistic feel, with Keenlyside again moving around the stage with ease. He is a rather restless performer, pacing and clasping and unclasping his hands, his eye level moving from audience to floor, but this seemed to suit the melancholic nature of the text and the wandering characters he was portraying. The emotional journey was clear to the eye and his easy diction brought the texts to life. The modulation into the major at the end of this piece was a lovely preparation for the exquisite “Blumengruß”, in which the harmony moves further and further away from the home key with some delicate syncopation in the accompaniment.

A much more authoritative tone was used for “Bei einer Trauung”, a description of wedding which rather tellingly begins with a funeral march, and Wolf used some poignant chords to illustrate the wry text. A totally fresh character of “Der Rattenfänger” was brought to the stage for one of Wolf’s more humorous and characterful songs, with brilliant harmonic and rhythmic action underneath the tuneful word setting. This rhythmic interest was carried into the following “Jägerlied”, in which the distinctive quintuple metre defines the whole song and Keenlyside and accompanist Malcolm Martineau’s rubato and freedom of tempo portrayed the bird’s soft tread beautifully.

The ominous “Denk es, o Seele”, a text that was presented in Mörike’s novella as a premonition of Mozart’s death, was a stark contrast to the dramatic monologue of “Prometheus”, one of the only songs Wolf also set for orchestra, taking full advantage of the colour and extremes of dynamic that this medium offers. The rumbling introduction gave hints of the drama to come and the rising chromatic passages were wonderfully interpreted by Martineau. An honest, tender performance of “Der König bei der Krönung” finished the half, with Keenlyside displaying more of the light tone in the higher register that was again impressively controlled and wonderfully descriptive.

The second half began with the uneasy ostinato bass line of Ravel’s “Un grand sommeil noir”. Keenlyside was introverted, almost intoning most of the song looking to the floor, while dramatic staccato chords broke the tension, which was broken with the “Kaddisch”, an Eastern-inspired song, with abstract chords in the piano part. The dramatic declamation of the Aramaic text was extremely striking and a complete contrast to the surrounding programme.

Ravel worked alongside Jacques Ibert on the film Don Quixote – Ravel providing songs for Feodor Chaliapin in the title role, with Ibert writing the rest of the film score. The disjunct rhythms and dissonance of the “Chanson Romanesque” had a lilting, dance-like feel. The final one of the set “Chanson à boire” provided a different character again with a humorous drinking song.

From here we were transported into the static harmonic world of Poulenc. The first of the three songs had an unsettled and uncertain feeling, with the unusual text beautifully at the forefront of Keenlyside’s interpretation. A more romantic crooning effect brought “Montparnasse”, reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, a stark contrast to the abstract “Un poème”; a short, simple poem, almost spoken rather than sung.

A pair of Fauré songs brought us towards the close of the concert – the dancing “Shylock’s madrigal” and the morning serenade “Aubade”, with a delicate, almost strummed accompaniment, played with a lovely touch by Martineau. Last up was Poulenc’s “Jacques Villion”, the final piece in the cycle Le travail du peintre, which ideally would have ended with a “joyful and sunny” “Henri Matisse” – however, the poet declined to supply him with a text, so it is the more severe “Villon” that ended the set and tonight’s programme. The two Ravel songs that Martineau and Keenlyside performed as a double encore were also intriguing pieces, again revealing the amazing clarity of touch of Martineau and the courageous use of vocal colour of Keenlyside.

****1