Simon Keenlyside/Julius Drake, Wigmore Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Simon Keenlyside is an uneasy recitalist. White tie and tails is probably his least favourite costume. Give him a character, give him the open stage, and he's happy. But place him in the well of the piano and suddenly he's the shy juvenile who's been told to stand still, but can't. In between the songs of this Wigmore Hall recital with pianist Julius Drake, he took fidgety walks across the platform. For him, it was a release; for us, a distraction.

If you closed your eyes, however, the concentration was unimpaired. Keenlyside is in fine vocal fettle right now. That was clear from the opening phrase of "Auf Dem Kirchhofe", the first of his Brahms group. True, there were some individual line readings in these songs; not everything was landing for him. But it was classy, and, in "Nachtwandler", his casually confidential deliverycaught the strange feeling of the song - as though he was the sleepwalker of the title.

Then came Rachmaninov, the voice really opening up to the music's very particular longing. The stern admonishments of "Khristos Voskres!" ("Christ is Risen!") took on a theatrical immediacy; "Ona, kak polden', khorosha" ("She is as Beautiful as Noon") did the classic Russian thing ofembracing the melancholy, with Julius Drake finding just enough space between the final chords to echo the words "silent shore". Keenlyside's Richard Strauss group was excellent: free, airy, and voluptuous by turns, his honeyed head voice effortlessly deployed - as in the ecstatic melisma which garlands the word "paradise" at the close of "Das Rosenband".

In the all-French second half, I was less sure about his choice of Poulenc songs. The seven-song cycle "Le Travail du Peintre" ("The Work of the Painter") promises more than it delivers, and whilst he caught the obliqueness of the other songs, something of their intrinsic Frenchness failed to come across. Far more compelling was the delusional beauty of Ravel's "Don Quichotte à Dulcinée" songs, and better even than that, the exquisite caress of Debussy's "Beau Soir", voice and keyboard seamlessly melded. For one song at least, Keenlyside was at peace with himself and us.

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