There were moments in Schubert’s song Verklärung (“Transfiguration”) where the splendour of the declamation and the whispering of spirits from the next world seemed almost too vivid to be true.
"The world recedes, it is no more”, sang Simon Keenlyside, and the sound of his voice doing just that – receding on the hint of an echo – gave the moment of the poet’s passing an added dimension. Some church acoustics swallow voices; the beautiful Temple Church at the gateway to the City of London amplifies and enhances.
Keenlyside and his collaborator Julius Drake had plainly thought long and hard about the programme. With the exception of “To Sylvia” and the popular mandolin-flecked Ständchen (“Serenade”) they chose the most dramatically resonant Schubert songs for the first half of the evening, songs exploiting the extremes of Keenlyside’s lyric baritone, where the lowest reaches of his range might acoustically be enriched and where his lovely head voice might float weightlessly. In the “Scene from Hades” the chilling imagery gripped with an actor’s relish with Keenlyside physically wielding Saturn’s scythe in the grisly pay-off. Die Sterne (“The Stars”) had him gazing beyond the vaulted ceilings of the church while Julius Drake’s pulsing accompaniment harmonically invoked the shimmer of the heavens. Im Walde (“In the Forest”) was heroic and elemental and thrillingly set up the Hugo Wolf group wherein the composer’s highly operatic way with words was brought very close to speech in some of Keenlyside’s colourings. Lied von Winde (“Song of the Wind”) was a Wagnerian tour de voice for both artists as if Wotan, the Wanderer, had thought better of magic fire and turned to the roaring wind to carry his child to safe keeping.
But then, after the interval, blissful culture shock turned lieder to mélodies and found Keenlyside singing better than I’ve heard him sing in a very long time. Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles brought out the zoologist in him, minutely detailed with everything deftly visualised and wittily characterised – especially his proud peacock, stood up yet again at the altar of his conceit.
But it was the Fauré group, such a good fit for this most romantic of voices, that felt most natural of all as Keenlyside effortlessly crossed the passaggio and lightly caressed phrasings as if they really did sing themselves – which they don’t. Notre amour (“Our Love”) was too gorgeous for words; Fleur jetée (“Discarded Flower”) brought rapture to torment and vividly reminded us that a lyric baritone is nothing without a fabulous top. Marvellous.