MUSIC: Roll out the baritone

Sanford Sylvan Wigmore Hall, London Sylvan ambled on stage with the rolling gait of the beery raconteur His performance had the warmth of the natural storyteller
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The Independent Culture
The world has a glut of fine baritones at present: the H file alone yields Holzmair, Hvorostovsky, Hampson, to name but three. In purely vocal terms, the American Sanford Sylvan may not be their match, but the art of the recital is never a purelyvocal matter, and on Tuesday Sylvan's Wigmore Hall debut won over an enthusiastic but disappointingly small audience. Sylvan ambled on stage with the rolling gait of the beery raconteur, and his performance had the warmth and intimacy of the natural storyteller. Barrel-chested and in tails, he cut an engagingly old-fashioned figure; and, standing at a slight angle, legsapart, left shoulder pushed forward with a hint of defiance, he indeed seemed about to deliver a set of drawing-room ballads. Yet the fluent command of his programme's shifting emotions kept sentimentality at bay.

Not that he was above a touch of theatre. Was it mere coincidence that, at the very moment in Schumann's "Mit Myrten und Rosen" (from the Op 24 Liederkreis) when Sylvan wiped sweat from his eye, he was singing about gazing "at your fair eyes"? Perhaps, but it was transfixing, a moment outside the sometimes frozen decorum of most song recitals.

The mock- heroism of Ravel's Don Quichotte a Dulcinee fitted him perfectly, and the infectious swagger of that set's drinking song sent the audience off to the bar happy and eager for more.

If this makes Sylvan seem a mere showman, that would be wrong. He has a rich baritone with generous vibrato, the bridge between head and chest voices secure. His pronunciation of French (Ravel, Faure) and German (Schumann, Brahms) tended to blur consonants and elongate vowels, but that's not an uncommon fault. He received intense and rhythmic support, sometimes rather loud, from his regular accompanist, David Breitman, the two clearly enjoying an easy-going mutuality.

The emotional core of the recital was a selection from The Aids Quilt Songbook, an expanding collection that borrows the principle of the Aids Quilt, unfurled annually in front of the White House, in which thousands of people from across the USA rememberthose who have died from Aids-related illnesses.

As Sylvan said in a sombre but not cheerless speech, the songs "ennoble universes of human contact". The most affecting were John Harbison's The Flute of Interior Time to a text by Robert Bly ("When love hits the farthest edge of excess, it reaches a wisdom" - seeds of Bly's Iron John persona here?) and Elizabeth Brown's A Certain Light, a setting of a poem by Marie Howe that was both harrowing and amusing. Without becoming ponderous, Sylvan invested each song with dignity, the fact that he was singing in his own language adding emotional directness.

This was an immensely likeable performance from a singer with a personality to fill the Wigmore Hall several times over.