No wonder the hall is full: a recital by the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff is not to be missed.
Perched on his customised stool, he immediately banishes any thoughts about his diminutive, thalidomide-affected frame. This is his favourite arena, and he commands it with easy grace. He starts with clarifications: tonight he will not sing Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death" in Russian: he only knows two words in that language, and to sing convincingly you must inhabit the text. By the time he launches into his first Schubert song, the spell is already cast.
Quasthoff is currently on a crusade for the lied, Germany's national song-form. As he rightly points out, his country owns the greatest lyricists in the world, but has no competition to reflect it, hence the international one Quasthoff has set up. In his view, each lied is a drama in miniature, and the rarely sung piece he opens with nicely exemplifies that thesis. Schubert's "Der Sanger", to Goethe's words, concerns a minstrel's arrival at a castle, and his masterly performance. It's a curiously matter-of-fact tale, but Quasthoff's "I sing as the bird sings in the branches" is very persuasive.
That persuasiveness lies in the burnished beauty of Quasthoff's tone. He colours his sound like a jazzman, going for instrumental rather than emotional effects, but there's plenty of emotion under the surface. While "Over Every Mountain-top" becomes a thread of sound travelling through stillness, "To Coachman Chronos" crackles with drunken energy. In Mussorgsky's paean to the grim reaper, Quasthoff demonstrates his dramatic gift, and he turns "Serenade" – with the aid of his brilliant accompanist Justus Zeyen – into a ravishingly fatal enchantment.