Friday, 27 February 2009

Ronan Collett, Iain Burnside - 26 February 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

Schubert – Frühlingssehnsucht
Schubert – Geheimes
Schubert – An Schwager Kronos
Schubert – An die Entfernte
Schubert – An Emma
Schubert – Die Sternennächte
Schubert – Gruppe aus dem Tartarus
Schubert – Wanderers Nachtlied I
Beethoven – An die ferne Geliebte, op.98
Butterworth – Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’
Schumann – Freisinn
Schumann – Der Soldat
Schumann – Die Lotosblume
Schumann – Venetianische Lieder I and II
Schumann – Was will die einsame Träne
Schumann – Zum Schluss

Ronan Collett (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)

This should have been a recital of Beethoven songs, many of them rare indeed, by John Mark Ainsley and Iain Burnside, part of Kings Place’s ‘Beethoven Unwrapped’ series. ’Flu, however, intervened, leaving Ronan Collett to step in at twenty-four hours’ notice. It would, of course, have been entirely unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to replicate such a programme, but it is a pity that this overlooked aspect of Beethoven’s output will now however to await another occasion. The audience should have been grateful to Collett for saving the day, and it was, yet it becomes difficult to assess such a performance. On the one hand, it seems unfair to judge it as if this were something on which the musicians had been working for some time; on the other, it would be patronising not to apply critical standards. Perhaps the best thing is to report as usual but to bear in mind the circumstances.

The Schubert group opened with a song from Schubert’s final ‘cycle’, Schwanengesang. Collett’s voice imparted to Frühlingssehnsucht an apt sense of excitement and expectation. The head voice provided a touching contrast, even if, on ‘hinab?’, the tuning was a little awry; this was rectified on the crucial ‘Warum?’ and ‘und du’ of the following stanzas. A slight sauciness was applied to the Goethe setting, Geheimes. Both Collett and Burnside, playing with admirable clarity, conveyed due urgency in the portrayal of time as coachman in An Schwager Kronos, another Goethe song. There clearly was no time to lose and Collett reached dynamic levels not previously heard. Sometimes during this group, as in An Emma, the notes were not always perfectly centred, but that song inspired a mood of forlorn stillness from both artists. A richer tone was permitted for Gruppe aus dem Tartarus. Menace from voice and piano conveyed an appropriately hellish menace, followed by tender recovery in the first Wanderers Nachtlied.

An die ferne Geliebte was all that remained of Beethoven. The youthfulness of the poems – Alois Jeitteles was a twenty-year old medical student – struck a chord with Collett. Whereas sometimes in the Schubert settings, I had the impression that, in a few years’ time, the voice would sound more settled, here this was less of an issue. Perhaps nerves had settled too. Collett drew the listener in, commencing a real narrative with the opening of Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend. Burnside showed himself keen to the developmental nature of his part; a story is to unfold. Indeed, there were nice touches in the piano part throughout, not least in conveying that obstinate persistence we know so well from the sonatas. Both artists were alert to quicksilver changes of mood. Moreover, that nobility which is so very much Beethoven’s was apparent in both parts, as was a reminder that we are not always so very far from Schubert. The combination of grace and unsettling undercurrents played their parts here. With the return of the opening material, there was a sense not only of return, but also of what had changed. Hope there remained for reunion with the narrator’s distant beloved. Collett, it may be noted, is no stranger to this cycle, having performed it with Mitsuko Uchida, no less, at the Berlin Philharmonie, as part of her residency there.

Collett’s diction had been impeccable throughout, and would continue to be so. Nevertheless, it seemed with the Butterworth songs, that there was a more instantly communicative quality when he sang in English. There were occasional intonational slips but the tone was also richer. Wistfulness was apparent, though this was not overdone; there was vigour too, as in Think, no more lad. The head voice was put to good use in the opening of Is my team ploughing? This contrasted with a full tone in the following lines, the contrast setting up a continuing alternation: rather like a dialogue between past and present, or dead and alive. Burnside proved secure and imaginative as an accompanist throughout.

The Schumann songs also had that quality of more unmediated communication, so perhaps it was not so much a matter of the language, after all. Burnside’s rhythmic security provided a sure foundation for the vocal line, especially in the first of the Venetianische Lieder, where the rhythm is so crucial to capturing the sense of a gondolier’s song. Both artists carefully differentiated this from the second such song, in which a brighter tone was employed. In Der Soldat, a setting of Hans Christian Andersen, we heard pain and anger, although there was a recurrence of the occasional wavering in tuning. In Die Lotosblume and Was will die einsame Träne, the two Heine settings, I sometimes missed that ironic bite that a more mature voice might impart, but the beauty of Heine’s verse shone through nonetheless. With Zum Schluss, the performance did what the title suggested; there was a proper sense of conclusion, rather as in the similarly titled epilogue to the piano Arabesque. A quiet dignity pervaded this final song. For the encore, we remained with Schumann and Rückert. Du meine Seele received just the right degree of youthful tenderness and impetuosity. This song really played to Collett’s strengths.