Thursday, 1 May 2008

Sir Thomas Allen, vocal recital, 29 April 2008

Friends of Peterhouse Theatre, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Schumann – Dichterliebe, Op.48
Butterworth – selection from A Shropshire lad
Copland – Long time ago
Copland – At the river
Bernstein – Greeting
Warlock – Ha’nacker Mill
Warlock – My own country
Warlock – Sleep
Thomas Dunhill – The cloths of heaven
Frank Bridge – The Devon maid

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)
Simon Over (piano)

This was a concert of two halves, certainly not in terms of quality of performance but rather of content. In the second half, Sir Thomas Allen and Simon Over performed a varied selection of songs in English, from twentieth-century English and American composers. If Leonard Bernstein’s uncharacteristically subdued Greeting failed to make any particular impression, and Frank Bridge’s The Devon Maid impressed more on account of Keats’s verse than Bridge’s setting, then this was in no sense the fault of the performers, who lavished as much care and attention upon songs such as these as they had on Schumann during the first half. The two Copland songs exhibited an easy going, almost folksy charm in Allen’s performance, to which he added if not quite an American drawl, then at least something unforcedly mid-Atlantic. Peter Warlock’s settings, to which Allen imparted a diverting spoken introduction, exhibited a fine marriage of words and music, both in terms of the works themselves and the performances. Over’s contribution was crucial not only to the general ‘atmosphere’ of the songs, but also to the sense of harmonic and rhythmic momentum, which without exception sounded in perfect tandem with the vocal line.

Perhaps the highlight of the first half came at its opening with six of George Butterworth’s settings from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The group – Loveliest of trees, When I was one-and-twenty, Look not in my eyes, Think no more, lad, The lads in their hundreds, and Is my team ploughing? – were nicely contrasted. Whilst there was an undoubted overarching melancholy to poetry, music, and performance, this did not preclude a sprightlier response where called for. The performances were thoroughly idiomatic, sounding as if presentations of the songs themselves rather than ‘interpretations’ thereof. I might hazard a couple of minor cavils, in that Allen’s intonation very occasionally did not initially hit the spot, although it was without exception swiftly corrected, and the head voice was not always quite so secure as the fine chest register. But if anything, these minor attributes added to the sense of slightly flawed humanity; they were in no sense distracting.

The first half was devoted entirely, and rightly so, to Schumann’s Dichterliebe. I left this until last, since it is of course a masterpiece of the highest order, and I suspect that it is this performance that I shall longest remember. What I said concerning intonation was occasionally the case here, but again the quibble is somewhat beside the point. What mattered was a thoughtful and profoundly moving response to the verbal and musical text. Indeed, Allen presented some of the best diction, in both German and English, I have heard in a recital or indeed anywhere else. There was not a single word for which I had to strain to hear. This was doubtless helped by the acoustic of the intimate Friends of Peterhouse Theatre, but on past experience, this nevertheless remains far from a given. In any case, Heine’s verse is so perfect that one needs to hear every word, and for once one did.

The audience’s attention seemed – and mine certainly was – captured from the vernal opening of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. Word-painting, in both the vocal and piano parts, was beautifully expressed throughout, without descending into the didactic. The word zerrissen (‘torn’) in Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen was almost onomatopoeic, yet the vocal line remained perfectly intact. Schubert’s ghost will always haunt subsequent Lieder, but I felt him notably present on a number of apt occasions. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne brought an especially finely-detailed piano response, reminiscent of the past joys of Winterreise, whilst the following Wenn ich in deine Augen seh was rounded off with a touchingly Schubertian postlude. Likewise the signs of hope, almost instantly to be dashed, in Ich will meine Seele tauchen, which is not of course in any sense to deny Schumann’s originality. An authentic Heine irony was heard in the real anger of Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen, as the poet hears the wedding dance of his beloved. Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen painted a true landscape of the heart, from the piano’s frozen opening onwards. And when, in Allnächtlich im Traume, we heard, ‘Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort’, we were indeed told a hushed word in secret. The nobility of the penultimate Aus alten Märchen winkt es prepared the way for the devastating Die alten, bösen Lieder. No one could have missed the bitterness of the final lines, in which the poet tells us that the coffin must be so large and heavy since he will also bury his love and his suffering. And the piano epilogue took me back to the parallel passage of beauty through tears in the Op.18 Arabeske, reminding us that Schumann remained above all a poet of his own instrument.

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