Saturday, 29 October 2011

Simon Keenlyside in Vancouver

From my friend Barbara Miller - Simon Keenlyside, Malcolm Martineau, Chan Centre for Performing Arts 25 Oct 2011

The lovely 1200-seat Chan Shun auditorium was largely full for this long-awaited recital by baritone Simon Keenlyside and pianist Malcolm Martineau.  I was feeling relieved and relaxed after a short and smooth border crossing that left time for a delicious dinner.  The program was in four sections: Selections from the Rückert and Des Knaben Wunderhorn lieder by Mahler, Butterworth’s first set of songs from A Shropshire Lad, Lieder by Strauss, and finally, melodies by Duparc and Debussy.   At the beginning it was announced that the recital was being recorded  for later broadcast over CBC (this in the context of warning us to be extra good about turning off cell phones, turning pages quietly, and waiting until the ends of sets to begin applause—we couldn’t let all of Canada witness Vancouver’s gaffes) .  It was not specified when this broadcast would take place; interested listeners should presumably check the CBC website.

The artists took the stage and began the Mahler set, which was sung and played well enough but didn’t come completely alive for me.  One big problem was Keenlyside’s distracting mannerisms, often seeming unsure of quite what he wanted to do with his hands, reaching for the piano but not always taking hold of it,  then quickly moving to the lapel of his three-piece suit, bringing both hands together, and at some points taking a handkerchief from his inner pocket and wiping his face. Some of these actions, combined with a few soft high notes being lost below the accompaniment in this set made me wonder whether he might not be feeling well, but if that were the case I don’t think he could have sung the whole recital as well as he did.  At times his gestures expressed the song very well, and he could be very still and attentive during postludes, which made me regret all the more the nervous energy that drove the gestures much of the rest of the time, presumably in the interest of making the lovely sounds he produced.

There were some very nice touches in this set, though.  In addition to Malcolm Martineau’s  ravishing nightingale effect in  “Ich ging mit Lust” and buzzing bees in “Blicke mir nicht in dieLieder”, I admired Keenlyside’s gutsiness in stage-whispering the word “glanzen” at the end of the third line of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”. “Liebst du um Schönheit” was beautifully sung, with expressive color contrasts bringing out the words.  The set ended with “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? “, sung with the energy and breath control it requires to sing the long melismas, eliciting an appreciative giggle from the audience at the end.  Overall the set was pleasant to hear but I didn’t feel completely connected with it.  I couldn’t help wondering whether these songs had originally been undertaken in observance of the recent Mahler anniversary rather than from a deep feeling for them on the part of the singer.

This feeling changed dramatically with the next group, George Butterworth’s first set of songs from  A. E. Housman’s  A Shropshire Lad. I always find it interesting when singers feel the need to speak from the stage, to explain their choices, as it were, and Keenlyside chose to do that with this set of “pretty English songs” as he at first labeled them.  I didn’t catch all of what he said (perhaps an incentive to try to pick up the broadcast), but I did hear him say that  these songs are thought of as “War Songs” due to Butterworth’s untimely death in the World War I trenches.  Rather than focusing on the horrors around them, soldiers tend to write about what they miss, which is what all travelers miss, home, pubs, friends, etc., and  Keenlyside  thinks that maybe these songs are “overcoloured by war”. The message I got was that a singer with an international career that keeps him travelling all the time (last night in Vancouver, tomorrow night in San Francisco, each a continent and an ocean away from home) may feel a deep personal resonance with the longings for the English countryside  he hears expressed in these songs.  Now we began to hear wider ranges in vocal color: “Loveliest of trees” began with a quiet, floated sound, the “wise  man” in “When I was One-and-Twenty” had the booming, authoritative voice of an elder lecturing a youth who reacted with a more meditative sound.  The artists took very short pauses between the songs, “Think No More Lad” taken as an attaca after “Look Not In My Eyes”, as if to shut down the dangerous thoughts lurking under the evocation of Narcissus.  “The Lads in Their  Hundreds” was almost chatty in its enumeration of the faces seen at the fair, pausing to ring out with the strength worthy of the largest opera houses on the last word of “the lads that will die”.  A flawlessly executed dialogue between the pale voice of  the ghost/memory of the dead friend and the resonant but uneasy voice of the living narrator gave the needed chill  to “Is My Team Ploughing”, which closed the set and the first half of the program.

The second half opened with the Strauss songs, where Keenlyside’s voice blossomed in the operatic phrases.  The program included the familiar “Das Rosenband” and “Ständchen” (on which every lieder duo seems compelled to make its mark these days, since it closed Strauss sets by both Christianne Stotijn and Measha Brueggergosman, at the recitals I heard last year).But I was more impressed by the floated phrases and strong vocal presence in “Befreit”, and the spookiness of “Waldesfahrt”, which suffered from the disadvantage of having the wrong  text printed in the program.  While the audience was left to try to figure out where in Körner’s poem “Im  Wald, im Wald” the singer was, I put the text aside as soon as I heard the opening line “Mein Wagon rollet langsam” from Heinrich Heine, and watched Keenlyside visualize the impish face at the window of his coach and the creepy feeling it gave him about his love.  In reading scholars’ speculations about why Robert Schumann’s setting of this text was dropped from the final “Dichterliebe”, I saw the complaint that Schumann’s setting lacks precisely this creepiness that Strauss captures, so it was a treat for me to see it expressed so well in Keenlyside’s performance.

The French set that closed the prepared program was beautifully executed. Keenlyside’s voice was particularly effective in the transparent, slightly nasal French vowels, adding a whole new feeling to the program.  Duparc’s “Le Manoir de Rosamonde” was almost fierce in its delivery, setting up the sensuality of “Phidylé”.  Whether the audience believed that the switch in composers from Duparc to Debussy indicated the end of a “set” or because it was so enraptured by the performance of the song, they burst into applause after Phydilé (sorry, Canada, sometimes you just can’t help yourself—I guess you had to be there).  The Debussy songs were among his lighter and more charming ones, beginning with the early  “Nuit d’Étoiles” and ending with the witty “Mandoline”,which closed with an articulated, meaningful look between the accompanist and singer on the final struck note that brought laughter to the audience.

After several curtain calls to acknowledge the standing ovation, the artist at last reappeared with music in the pianist’s hand.  There were four encores in all, the singer’s introductions to them making it clear that they had a great deal of personal meaning to him.  There was again a frisson of the itinerant singer’s possible homesickness when  Keenlyside said that, for him, coming home is coming home to Schubert, and therefore he would sing “Der Wanderer an den Mond”, where the traveler envies the moon for being at home anywhere.  The performance by both pianist and singer was less “folksy” and more legato and even boomingly resonant than I often hear it, and it was particularly poignant to see the singer blow a kiss afterward to the audience member to whom he was dedicating the song.  The second encore was actually announced as two songs in one take.  He explained that he wanted to sing Percy Grainger’s setting of “A Sprig of Thyme” for his cousin, finding Grainger’s folksong settings “not quite as louche as some of Britten’s arrangements.” But prior to that we were treated to a lovely performance of John Ireland’s “Sea Fever”.  Enthusiastic applause continued after these songs, so we were treated to one more encore, Schubert’s  “An mein  Klavier”, which, sure enough, Keenlyside sang to the nine foot Steinway grand piano itself, growing gradually softer and more intimate with each strophe, leaving us with this tender melody in our ears as we made our way through the lovely Chan center lobby to our cars.

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