Simon Keenlyside, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The good news is that Simon Keenlyside has curbed his usual incessant prowling on the recital platform. Not only was he in resplendent voice for this ambitious Wigmore Hall programme, but the new-found stillness (or relative stillness) drew us more directly into his confidence. The nervous energy was still very much in evidence, but harnessing it physically made for an extraordinary tension in the singing. You can't lie in the recital hall, and the shifty body language always suggested he was doing just that. Not this time.

So began Schumann's Dichterliebe in the well of Malcolm Martineau's piano. Head bowed, hands tightly clasped, Keenlyside was suddenly a young man reliving the first flush of romance with each of the early songs – especially "Rose, lily, dove" – conveying the rush of infatuation and the feeling that these pleasant memories were to be seized and savoured lest they too quickly evaporate. With "In the Rhine, the holy river", they did, the darkening tone bringing a terrible portent of the central song in the cycle, "Ich grolle nicht" ("I bear no grudge"), where Keenlyside's stoicism gave way to bitter heartbreak with a sensationally brave high A-natural.

Thereafter, the pace slowed, giving the whole narrative a shapely inevitability. Martineau was an extraordinary collaborator, the terse piano punctuations in the effectively unaccompanied "I wept in my dream" suggesting the involuntary convulsions of a bad dream. His postlude to the final song brought great solace – and stillness from Keenlyside, for once visibly at peace.

Six songs from Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad then mourned the lost youth of war in that jolly, virile, casually ironic English way. Keenlyside brought poignancy to the duet-for-one, life-and-death drama of "Is my team ploughing", and, as he pointed out, Housman's First World War texts are sadly just as relevant now.

After which, Poulenc sat somewhat uneasily. "Gone missing" struck a chord or two, being a deceptively sad song penned during the Occupation of Paris, but the surrealism of Eluard's texts for "Tel jour, telle nuit" seemed remote after so much emotional immediacy. Still, Keenlyside seemed to enjoy the fanciful and dramatic way the voice wrapped itself around the words, and with his heady mezza voce working overtime, he carried us through to a thrilling climax with "We have created night". Love lost, love found, love lost again – our heads were spinning.

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