Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano; Songs by Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Duparc and Butterworth - Chan Centre, October 25, 2011

SImon Keenlyside, baritone

SImon Keenlyside, baritone

There are few singers in the world right now that captivate devotees of opera and art song more than British lyric baritone Simon Keenlyside.  His beautifully burnished and expressive tone colour, his strong and clean articulation, and his vocal flexibility offer the obvious reasons why.  But the truly special ingredient is this singer’s ability to get right inside anything he is performing and convey the complexity and intensity of the feeling involved.  On the opera stage, this leads to wonderfully subtle and detailed portrayals of his assumed roles; his strong acting abilities allow their vivid presentation.  In song, it is his ability to dissect the variety in each text (poem) so lucidly and convey even small emotional changes with precision and insight.

For the newcomer to lieder (‘art song’), the first thing that would have impressed about this recital is how well Simon Keelyside can convey everything in a song from a vulnerable whisper to a quiet, disembodied loneliness, to the most noble and commanding outpouring of sound.  He can be innocent and vulnerable at one moment, defiant and purposive at the next, yet never shies away from feelings of romantic love.  In addition to his wonderfully fulsome middle and lower register, he often uses a quiet ‘white’ tone (falsetto-like) to bring out contrasts in feelings, being able to switch almost instantaneously between this tone and his full voice.  In all of this, one must highlight the singer’s ‘silent’ partner, Malcolm Martineau, unobtrusive yet infinitely sensitive to every nuance in interpretation.

This programme concentrated on songs written around the beginning of the 20th C. but offered considerable variety. Keelyside was able to capture the innocence and fragrance of Gustav Mahler’s settings of Ruckert’s poems -- opening out most strikingly in Liebst du um Schoenheit (‘If you love for beauty’) -- while bringing out both the wit and strength of the more varied pieces from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Youth’s Magic Horn’). In the richer Strauss songs, we saw further evidence of his pristine detailing and magnificent tonal variety and strength; his account of Befreit (‘Freed’) was particularly subtle; Das Rosenband (‘The Rose Garland’) was strong and very beautiful.  If anything, the French songs were even finer.  The sculpted long lines of Duparc’s Phidyle were exquisitely judged, as was the shimmering melancholy of Debussy’s Nuit d’etoiles (‘Starry Night’).

Did I ever feel that there was a less than perfect marriage between mind and soul in this singing; that the singer’s quest for detail and expression were so intense that he did not fully relax into the natural flow of the music?  Instances of this were very few indeed, perhaps a trace more in the German songs than in the French.  And of absolutely no concern in the additional settings of Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by George Butterworth (1911), which he sang in a manner born.  I simply cannot visualize these touching English expressions being better or more naturally performed, capturing everything from their strong, heroic lines to their deep sadness and pain.  Especially moving was the last song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ in the way that Keenlyside alternated his chilling ‘white’ tone with his full voice over its eight stanzas.

All told, this was probably the finest vocal recital we have seen in Vancouver in a good many years.  Truly a remarkable artist; for a captivating recital on CD, find WH Live 0031.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011