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S & H Recital Review

Faure, Chausson, Hahn; John Mark Ainsley, Roger Vignoles. Wigmore Hall, Monday November 26th (ME).

Every time Londoners open the "Evening Standard" they are reminded of how ghastly it can be to live here - the appalling underground, the litter, the endless traffic and so on - but there are times when we just have to admit that it's a pretty wonderful place after all, and this Monday was just such a time. Where else can you amble along to such a perfect auditorium on a Monday mid-day, and join a large audience of fellow music lovers, to receive with rapt attention some fairly obscure yet exquisite music, performed with grace and eloquence by a leading tenor and one of the world's great accompanists? If you live in London and have the time free, you can do this sort of thing nearly every Monday, and it costs just 8, or an absurd 6.80 if you book for 12 of them. Fabulous.

I first heard Roger Vignoles being treated to the vagaries of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's teaching methods during some fairly vicious Master classes at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival, and his calm, tolerance and responsiveness were a real joy then, just as they still are now. To say that his accompanying is supportive, idiomatic and technically ideal, is insufficient; his playing serves as an extension of the voice, and his exquisite renditions of complex trills at the postludes as well as his buoyant rubato and singing legato line gave the most consistent pleasure at this recital, so I make no apologies for starting with the accompanist on this occasion.

This is not to say that Ainsley was anything less than superb, although for once I found his French rather less idiomatic than it usually is; perhaps he has not been singing or speaking it much recently, since he usually delights even the French-speaking curmudgeon in me with his perfect diction and responsiveness to the words, and this time he was not always quite in keeping with the tone and emphasis of some of the language. However, this is merely to place him at the level of nearly every other English recitalist in terms of French diction, and as far as the actual singing was concerned, his lovely, fresh, forward tone and elegant phrasing were unchanged.

They began with a set of Fauré songs, mostly reflecting upon the ecstasy and immutability of love, and it would be possible to prefer a more overtly passionate interpretation of some of them than Ainsley gave us. If voices can be compared to wines, then his is a very refined, first - growth Puligny-Montrachet, since it is remarkable for its combination of honey-and-toast with a steely edge rather than any general sweetness. Such comparisons are not irrelevant for this music, with its heady languor and erotic overtones; in "Aubade," although one might want a juicier tone, the freshness of his rising line at "Voici le frais matin!" and his savouring of the vowel sounds in "Accours, ô mon trésor!" were typical of his style.

In this group, the highlights were a beautifully sung and played "Clair de lune" in which the musical line was sustained with poetic grace by the pianist and where Ainsley's lucid diction at "Au calme clair de lune triste et beau" was exquisite, and "Hymne," an early work which is more dramatic than one might expect from Fauré; Ainsley sang the passionate closing phrase "Salut en immortalité" with an upsurge of real power, a foretaste of what was to come in the stunning Hahn songs.

Before that, we had a short group of Chausson, in which the singing was never less than eloquent and shapely, occasionally touching heights of real lyric grace, especially during the finely phrased closing lines of "La Caravane" and the superb performance of "Le colibri," in which the ecstatic "Sur ta lèvre pure, ô ma bien-aimée...Du premier baiser qui l'a parfumée!" provided an object - lesson in how to manage a difficult diminuendo, the voice rising in a powerful surge then gradually fading to a mere thread of shimmering sound.

The high point of this recital was "Venezia," a group of songs in Venetian dialect by the rather neglected Reynaldo Hahn. (I have not been able to find a current recording of the full cycle, and I hope that Ainsley and Vignoles will soon remedy this situation, since, although no one could reasonably claim the status of High Art for these pieces, they have delectable charm and they show off the tenor voice to perfection.) They were first performed on a gondola in Venice, to the delight of ".an audience of ordinary people pressing forward to listen," and Ainsley did absolutely everything he could to evoke that spirit, one of a singer revelling in the lusty power of his voice and the melodic joyfulness of these artless pieces, and even though his audience could hardly be described as "ordinary people," if we had needed to "press forward," we would have done so in order to more fully savour this delectable singing and playing.

Ainsley is the very last person you could possibly imagine propelling (if that is the right word) a gondola, but then Hahn himself would have been equally unlikely, and the tenor took the part of the passionate Italian lover, to perfection. After the elegance and restraint of most of what had gone before, it was a revelation to hear the sound he made here; to say that it was Italianate would not be an exaggeration, and he rose to the powerful, lung-swelling outbursts such as "Ridiadesso e fa l'amor" with real vigour. "La barcheta" was very beautifully sung, especially in the arching phrases of the "Ah!" which close each stanza, and the interpretation could best be described as sexy, certainly worlds away from the rather delicately reticent rendition of the only other recorded version I know well, that of Ainsley's teacher Anthony Rolfe Johnson; the latter's is one of my favourite voices, but in this music it is redolent of cucumber sandwiches rather than....delicacy forbids me to elaborate.

"La biondina in gondoleta" was as fine an example of vivid tenor art as could be imagined. This little song is gently erotic, and Ainsley made the most of it - the narrator tells of his rapture at seeing his blonde asleep, but decides he just has to wake her - "E g'ho fato da insolente, / No m'ho avuto da pentir; / Oh dio, .che belle cosse..che g'ho fato!" (And so I acted cheekily, nor did I need to repent that - God, what lovely things I did!") - both voice and piano here were as sweetly naughty as was needed; no point in over - intellectualising this sort of thing, after all.

The recital proper ended with "La primavera," in which the voice sounded ever more Italian as the temperature of the emotions rose, culminating in a triumphant, show -off display with the high note at the end - and why not? An enthusiastic audience was favoured with an encore - unusual, in these short concerts, and it's such a pity that, despite having advertised to the contrary, the BBC are not repeating this fine recital on Sunday as has always been their practice - apparently a choral Advent piece has taken precedence, and one might remark in passing, coming back to my first paragraph, that those of us who are able to attend such recitals are indeed fortunate. However, the BBC also has a duty to serve those who pay their license fee but are not amongst those lucky ones free to attend a concert or sit by a radio in the middle of the working day. Yes, it could have been recorded, but who would do so, having been given the information that the usual repeat was scheduled? I regret not being able to share such an example of the art of the singer and accompanist with my friends and colleagues in less (musically) favoured locations.

Melanie Eskenazi

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