Classical GEOFFREY PARSONS REMEMBERED Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
A smiling Geoffrey Parsons is pictured waving from the cover of the programme book. But, as Thomas Hampson remarked during the second part of this two-concert celebration of his life and art, he hasn't gone at all - he's simply "moved into our imaginations". It's true. And the Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Trust will see to it that new generations of pianists "with an affinity for song and / or chamber music" will keep our imaginations well stocked - and unlocked, and tantalised, and stimulated, and challenged. Such is the enduring power of song in this hall of song.

And we can begin honouring his memory by promising never to use the word "accompanist" again. Can we really describe the likes of Graham Johnson, Malcolm Martineau, Leslie Howard and Imogen Cooper thus? That's music minus-one, that's like pretending that the texture of a song is carried in the voice alone. And when you've heard Graham Johnson make the revelatory modulation into the second stanza of An die ferne Geliebte - the epic Beethoven / Jeitteles lied that opened this programme - you understand why. Johnson's realisation of that moment radiated through the fabric of the song, preparing the way for voice and words, opening up an entirely new vista in the imagination (that word again) of the poet. Hampson sang it most gratefully, the delicate balance of heartache and wonder caught to perfection in Beethoven's transfixing monotone. But this isn't a song, this is a world of song, a gran scena of a lied - many moods, emotions, contradictions.

Which might also suggest Mahler. And how typical of Hampson to honour Parsons with three of the most challenging lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn - a challenge already taken to exhaustive lengths of scholarship in their remarkable recording of the original piano versions. To hear Das himmlische Leben, the finale of the Fourth Symphony, removed from that context - a new feel, a new texture, the male voice somehow desentimentalising it, lending a more bucolic air - is to rediscover it in an entirely different light. Hampson was sorely stretched here, no question, but beyond that it was real, honest. As was Das Schildwache Nachtlied, military bluster so eloquently giving way to a profound Mahlerian loneliness. And most of it distilled by Hampson in a solitary sigh, the last word in portamento on the last word of text - "Verlor'ne Feldwacht", ("A forlorn sentinel") - and in Johnson's placing of the empty final chords. Forlorn indeed.

The vocal and pianistic texture of the evening was nothing if not varied. Yvonne Kenny gave us Faure, Hahn, Satie, and Liszt of no mean artistry, if only the voice were truly to yield, particularly in the hardening top register.

But all eyes and ears were poised for the big entrance. Whatever the occasion, she is always, of course, top of the bill. Jessye Norman paid her homage in Strauss. The performance was stellar, the singing less so. Voice and figure, both (she's looking sensational, almost svelte, right now), felt scaled down to the point where the top of her range, in particular, was not speaking freely. The intimacy felt forced, the sound uncharacteristically dry. No one, but no one creates atmosphere in and around a song like Norman. She is a star. Only a star could make theatrical capital of singing her encore, Zueignung, while still clutching her bouquet. But not even that was going to distract from the fact that the climactic top note, like everything else in this set, was well short of her best. Still, she came, as did they all, for one reason. And he would have rejoiced.

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