Arts: The Lieder of the pack; Classical

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SIMON KEENLYSIDE must be the only singer to let his pianist, Malcolm Martineau, walk on stage first. But then he's not your preening star - he's an uncommonly subtle and, at the same time, a very sincere musician, for whom the song really is the thing. When his first solo CD came out a few years ago, the highly experienced critic of The Gramophone called him the finest British interpreter of Schubert, and in 1995 The Critics Circle voted him Singer of the Year.

It has taken the public a little while to catch up with him, despite Keenlyside's long list of distinguished roles in the world's leading opera houses. Saturday night's recital was not quite sold out, but the reception was tumultuous.

Keenlyside's programme showed him in almost as many lights as possible, though most of the songs were composed at the end of the 19th century. His gorgeously warm baritone is ideally suited to German Lieder, and at the end of the evening, I would have chosen to take home with me his singing of Strauss's "Traum durch die Dammerung" - a miracle of deep, understated rapture. Yet, though he's not temperamentally a blusterer, he saluted spring, in "Herr Lenz", with as much ringing swagger as the best of them, and rounded off "Cacilie" with real steel in the voice.

Over the years, Keenlyside has freed up his acting skills a good deal, and recently, at the Barbican, he showed what a good mover he is in the title role of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Four songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn drew from him, at one extreme (in "Der Schildwache Nachtlied"), the most probing, melancholic reflections, and at the other, a wonderful gift for sardonic mimicry in the song contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale judged by a donkey ("Lob des hohen Verstandes").

Perhaps, in songs by Debussy, Keenlyside's diction did not exactly dance on his lips - I found a lot of the words unclear, though he did lighten his voice, and contrasted half and full tone almost to excess.

Which was a far cry from the four songs of his final group, by Tosti. Beautifully written for the voice, they must be a singer's dream, and no doubt it's tempting to overdo their ardour.

Keenlyside took their effusiveness to just the right degree, so that their musical fluency could make its effect without mannerism.