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Schubert. ‘Winterreise’ Simon Keenlyside, Graham Johnson, Wigmore Hall, March 25th. (M. E.)

In a recent interview, the baritone Simon Keenlyside said that he had left Schubert’s great song cycle out of his repertoire partly because each time he contemplated it he found himself going back to all the other hundreds of great songs he wanted to do, and partly because he did not like the kind of comments bestowed upon young singers to the effect of ‘oh well, think what he’ll do with it when he’s forty.’ Well, Keenlyside is now 42 and clearly considers himself ready to take it on, and this performance revealed him as a mostly sensitive interpreter, frequently alive to textual and musical nuance, but without once demonstrating the true greatness of either Goerne (28 when he first sang it in London) or Quasthoff (34). His is an attractive, rather than beautiful voice in terms of Lieder, and his interpretation of ‘Winterreise’ could hardly be said to touch the soul. No one who heard Quasthoff at Schwarzenberg and Goerne at Glyndebourne last year could possibly say that Keenlyside was in the same league, but his singing is mostly faithful to text and music without being in any way remarkable.

‘Gute Nacht’ was a rocky beginning; his voice sounded as though it was in need of warming up, with a few insecure low notes ,but by the time he reached ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören,’ he seemed to have got into his stride, and produced some lovely soft singing, with the words of ‘Sacht, sacht, die Türe zu!’ being caressed with real delicacy. Keenlyside’s diction is exceptional throughout, indeed he frequently makes the songs sound as though they are being sung by a native German speaker for whom the poems have real meaning, and this was especially evident in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ and ‘Gefrorne Tränen,’ where he also produced some superbly resonant fortes.

The latter song illustrated perfectly what seem to me to be his strengths and weaknesses; the diction is sharp, the phrasing musical, the tone pleasing, but he seems to lack that essential feeling for rhythm, and, crucially, he does not move me in the slightest. It is usually at this song that, in a great performance – and I have heard and seen many – I am first moved to tears, not necessarily by the sentiments being expressed but by the rise and fall of those major key phrases such as ‘Dass ich geweinet hab?’ but here I received the lines with matter-of-fact attention.

‘Der Lindenbaum’ is of course a sure winner in anyone’s hands, and Keenlyside sang it sweetly, but without really suggesting that contrast between grim stoicism ‘Ich wendete mich nicht’ and tempting oblivion ‘Du fändest ruhe dort!’ His finest moments were ‘Rückblick,’ which he sang with real fervour, and ‘Frühlingstraum’ where he rose to those heartbreaking repeated A minor phrases at ‘Die Augen schliess ich wieder……….’ yet still without touching the real pathos inherent in the music. The latter song was played with great delicacy by Graham Johnson, but for much of the time I felt that singer and pianist were not exactly thinking along the same lines, and there were many occasions where Keenlyside seemed to be expecting the pianist to carry the major part of the music’s rhythmic effect; this is natural in a few songs, but in the majority there is a need for more intimacy of partnership than I sensed here.

Johnson’s playing of the dance-like vorspiel to ‘Täuschung’ sounded so lilting that he almost turned it into a jolly little Ländler, but his playing of the final songs was ideal in its unforced solemnity.

‘Das Wirtshaus,’ described by Johnson was ‘the grandest vocal hymn that Schubert ever wrote,’ was perhaps the singer’s least impressive moment; apart from the textual errors in the last stanza, he did not quite make it up into the passagio on ‘matt,’ so the crucial word sounded delicate rather than tortured, and his breath control and ability to sustain a long legato line were really not up to the breadth of tempo required. In contrast, ‘Die Nebensonnen’ was beautifully sung, with firm tone and tender phrasing, yet still remained unmoving. In sum, it is always wonderful to hear ‘Winterreise,’ especially when Graham Johnson’s vast experience and unfailing love are brought to bear upon the accompaniments, but this was not a performance to wring the heart, despite all the hand – wringing that went on. Keenlyside’s is a fairly dramatic rendition of the cycle, but ultimately, he relates the songs, he does not inhabit them.


Melanie Eskenazi

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