As with the Five Boys who advertised Fry’s chocolate in the Fifties, we were to be taken on a Valentine’s Day cycle (from longing via Liebestod to loss) by six singers from the Royal Academy of Music’s Song Circle.
This initially sounded just a pleasant piece of fun, but from the moment soprano Ruth Jenkins and pianist Chris Hopkins launched into ‘Tell me the truth about love’ - Auden’s poem set to music by Benjamin Britten - we were clearly in for something more interesting: an unusual tour of the Lieder repertoire, and a preview of some stars for tomorrow.
Britten was a fine jazz pianist, and his setting of Auden’s wryly suggestive verses has a lazy, rolling swing which Jenkins caught instinctively. Her upward flicks into floridity were deft, she produced power when it was needed, and her voice had a light expressiveness which palpably connected with the audience: you could sense them itching to break the rule of the day, which was to run straight through with no applause until the end. Then came a tenor, then a baritone, then another tenor, then a mezzo, taking it in turns to stand by the piano as in a Victorian drawing-room entertainment.
There wasn’t a weak link in the chain, though some voices were not yet fully-formed. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth won last year’s Wigmore international song competition, and his technique with Schumann is impeccable, but he now needs to expand his vocal palette. Mezzo Katie Bray didn’t sound at ease with Haydn, but with Kurt Weill’s ‘Je ne t’aime pas’ - written for the cabarets of Paris after he’d been sacked by Universal - she revealed an accomplished command of poesie maudite. Tenor Peter Davoren’s already-impressive oratorio track record was no surprise, given the warmth of his bel canto sound and his instant rapport with the audience.
The other two singers took time to assert themselves, but both seem to me destined for fame. Soprano Mary Bevan’s way of delivering Wolf’s ‘Wie lange schon’ was exquisitely sly, and when she opened up her high register, in a duet with tenor Roberto Ortiz, the effect was ravishing. Ortiz is a Mexican with film-star looks and an unusually restrained platform manner, but his artistry is refined, his top notes are lustrous, and he has a winning way of letting his sound hang delicately in the air.