The Songmakers' Almanac, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

On paper, this programme, entitled "Let Us Garlands Bring", promised a typical Songmakers' Almanac evening, with a small group of distinguished singers assembled round the piano to give a well-chosen sequence of settings and songs inspired by Shakespeare. But one had reckoned without the readings: a barrage of international views pro and contra the Bard delivered in dubious accents even before we reached the first song, and thereafter obliging the singers to quick-change between speech and music.

That fine young baritone Christopher Maltman hectored uncharacteristically in his opening "Drinking song" (out of Antony and Cleopatra) by Schubert while the sumptuous mezzo soprano of Catherine Wyn-Rogers sounded unfocused in "Who is Silvia". Their accompanist and "onlie begetter" of the whole Songmakers' Almanac concept, Graham Johnson, thumped. It was not until Wyn-Rogers and Johnson reached Poulenc's touchingly simple little setting of "Tell me where is fancy bred" that an atmosphere of genuine concentration was instilled.

At which point, Dame Felicity Lott floated on to the stage to deliver three of Brahms's Ophelia Songs interspersed with Richard Strauss's settings of the same texts - a telling juxtoposition since the Brahms, written for a stage performance, are of unaccompanied, folkloristic simplicity, whereas Strauss is at his most chromatically "modernistic". Dame Felicity was in slightly fluttery voice for once, but the effect, all the same, was mesmeric. It certainly inspired Wyn-Rogers and Maltman to give of their best in Berlioz's tender "The Death of Ophelia" and Shostakovich's darkly rhetorical setting of Tsvetaeva's poem "Hamlet's Dialogue with His Conscience".

There were, mercifully, fewer readings in the second half, which opened with three further settings of "Fancy", including little-known trio settings by Weber and Britten. Of a central group of songs by English composers, the most striking was Edmund Rubbra's sensuous "Take, o take those lips away" given due intensity by Wyn-Rogers. But Johnson's penchant for the unhackneyed brought forth a powerful scena on Lady Macbeth's speeches by Joseph Horovitz.

And the evening concluded with a rare Hugo Wolf fairy song from A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring Dame Felicity and some of Johnson's most pellucid playing. If the elaborate anthologising, scripting and stage-managing of spoken material sometimes threatens to lapse into cosy charade, it seems that the musical instincts of Johnson's enterprise remain strong as ever.