Thomas Allen & Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

This was a surprisingly muted evening. None the worse for it, perhaps, though the obvious thought occurred that the title role in Sweeney Todd made Sir Thomas Allen feel a mood of reflection was welcome. On paper, the short but beautifully planned programme didn't look at all as if it needed to be delivered quite so intimately, and with Malcolm Martineau barely seated at the keyboard, Schumann's "Widmung" opened with a bluster, swiftly withdrawn - appropriate to the words - after the opening lines.

Allen has always had a way of bottling up his voice, and it still sounded throaty and small in "Dein Angesicht", which you could say aptly suggested the kiss of death, while "Du bist wie eine Blume" could only be as it was: tender and prayerful. Last in the Schumann group, the skipping rhythms of "My Heart's in the Highlands" (Burns translated into German) were niftily articulated, though still the tone was contained rather than projected.

Tom Allen is one of the finest interpreters of Hugo Wolf before the public and his choice of "Nun wandre", "Maria" and "Schlafendes Jesuskind" were his only concessions to the season. The pain and weariness of the first were conveyed at a tempo which avoided dragging, while the second was secretive, almost hermitic - both beautifully done in Allen's fine German. Yet if my ears didn't fail me, he fudged a bit in the middle of "Benedeit die sel'ge Mutter", where the voice and piano go their separate melodic ways to richly disconcerting effect.

Then, to end the first half, came four songs by Richard Strauss: the succinct, conversational style of "Die Nacht" was very naturally sung, but followed by a rather withdrawn "Allerseelen", in which even the climax was a shadow of what it might have been. "Die Zeitlose" - again in a more "parlando" style - seemed more to Allen's mood, and "Zueignung", which is often sung at full throttle, was unforced, comfortable rather than ardent, but in its way convincingly sincere.

All this lasted less than 30 minutes, as did the recital's second half (bar encores), which was all American - and none of your American brashness at that. Samuel Barber himself was a most refined, if somewhat tremulous, baritone in his own right, though in "Sure" on this shining night I found the piano part, sensitively handled by Martineau, more convincing than the rather contrived vocal line. And why did Allen make the top note on the penultimate line of "Nocturne" so small? (You needn't answer.)

Two Ives songs, "The Children's Hour" and "Tom Sails Away", confirmed the self-communing mood, though, thank Heaven, there was no hint of the "Aint-I-quaint" air of condescension that some singers bring to these very direct lyrics.

Two Aaron Copland arrangements, very tender and affectionate, and Armstrong Gibbs's "The Oxen", in a confiding manner, were followed by four spirituals, sung with a variety of projection, great flexibility, and - as they should be - seriously and with total sincerity. But we only got the full big golden-brown Allen voice with his second encore, Cecil Sharp's arrangement of "King Herod and the Cock".