Whether the programme was too scattergun to appeal or the artists insufficiently known to draw crowds, there was a disappointing turnout at Wigmore Hall for this captivating evening of song. Yet the young American John Chest, a finalist at the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is well on the way to becoming a major player. His caramel baritone seduces audiences both live (he was a ravishing Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Aix-en-Provence) and on record, as witness his perfectly weighted contributions to the complete Fauré song cycle on Signum Classics; and his forthcoming turn as Pelléas at this summer’s Glyndebourne Festival is likely to engrave his name on the UK’s consciousness.

John Chest © Andrey Stoycher
John Chest
© Andrey Stoycher

This, though, was one for the already-converted. It may seem a little perverse to present ‘A Winter Journey’ in mid-March, the more so when Winterreise itself is nowhere to be seen, but since the title was just a hook on which to hang a showreel it hardly mattered. More puzzling was the evening’s centrepiece: a complete performance of Britten’s Winter Words (eight songs ‘for high voice’), sung with a baritonal warmth that negated the bleakness in Thomas Hardy’s poems. It was silken but it didn’t ache. The most successful numbers were Wagtail and baby, whose irony Chest accurately pinpointed, and a movingly characterised account of The choirmaster’s burial.

The Brazilian Marcelo Amaral was an attentive pianist but his colouring was limited and he seemed bothered by the vagaries of his Steinway’s sustaining pedal. His technique, though, was strong and he complemented Chest’s voice flawlessly. It was he who caught the desolation in Midnight on the Great Western, the engine wheezing effortfully, the train-whistle duplet sounding lonely and unloved.

Apart from the Britten this was a sampler disc of a concert, a conspectus of Chest’s repertoire that confirmed his legato singing as a marvel of our time. It was scarcely possible to breathe during his encore, an account of Schubert’s dream song Nacht und Träume that I’d count the finest I’ve heard live, so ineffably did it touch the sublime. It sat well at the close of a final segment soaked in beauty and cloaked in bliss, from Mahler’s Rückert song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen to Duparc’s Extase, the latter’s place in the programme swapped with Strauss’ Winternacht presumably in order to sustain this late-evening glow of slow-burn rapture.

If Chest is not yet the finished article, he’s damned close. Schumann’s sorrowful Wehmut lacked a tinge of melancholy, Schubert’s An mein Herz was a bit of a word-chase and Brahms’s Verzagen seemed too poised for the song’s faltering mood, but he and Amaral inflected Finzi’s Childhood among the Ferns (another Hardy setting) with a delicate sprinkling of raindrops and memories. As for his intonation, never less than accurate, it made the chromatic melodic traps of Wolf’s Werschweigene Liebe seem effortless.

Chest’s even delivery and easy breath control combined with a light vibrato and immaculate French pronunciation make him ideally suited to the mélodie, so it was a pity he and Amaral chose not to invite Fauré or Debussy to their party. Still, Roussel’s Le jardin mouillé was a shrewd Gallic choice: a showpiece for the pianist (complete with another fall of raindrops) and for the singer an atmospheric foretaste of Pelléas et Mélisande that left the audience entranced.