Friday 13 November 2015

A thrilling evening - Quinn Kelsey at Rosenblatt Recitals

Quinn Kelsey at Rosenblattt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall - photo Jonathan Rose
Quinn Kelsey at Rosenblattt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall
photo Jonathan Rose
Tchaikovsky, Finzi, Massenet, Ravel, Copland, Mussorgsky
Quinn Kelsey, Llŷr Williams
Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 11 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Thrilling evening from young Hawaiian baritone in an eclectic programme

Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey first came to prominence in London with his terrific performance in the title role of Rigoletto with ENO (see my review), so his recital  at the Wigmore Hall, accompanied by Llŷr Williams, for Rosenblatt Recitals was a welcome chance to hear this young baritone in a rather different context. He and Llŷr Williams performed an imaginative and eclectic mix of Russian, English and French composers in pieces which all showcased Kelsey's dark-hued baritone voice. The programme consisted of Prince Yeletsky's aria Ya vas lyublyu from Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades, Gerald Finzi's song-cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, Herod's aria Vision fugitive from Massenet's opera Herodiade, Maurice Ravel's Don Quichotte a Dulcinee, a group of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs and Modest Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.

With such a varied programme, it was impressive that Quinn Kelsey sang everything from memory and that he had not fallen into the trap of simply giving us a mixture of arias and songs by operatic composers. This was a programme which really tested the singer and showed off the many facets of his rich baritone voice, with its dark chestnut tones and fine, even production. Whatever he sang, Kelsey produced a strong, even line which was made all the more telling by his attention to the words. As far as I could tell, his Russian was entirely creditable and certainly comprehensible, whilst his French was superb and his English too.

He started with Yeletsky's heart-breaking aria, where the character tells Lisa that he loves her but realises she does not reciprocate. Kelsey started quite still on stage but got more animated as the music did, throughout the recital I was impressed how he used stillness on the platform whilst never seeming impassive and his very mobile face was always conveying the emotion involved. There are some thrilling moments in the aria, as well as the heartbreaking ones, and Kelsey managed his voice finely giving us a thrilling top.

Quinn Kelsey at Rosenblattt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall - photo Jonathan Rose
Quinn Kelsey at Rosenblattt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall
photo Jonathan Rose
Next came Gerald Finzi's  Let Us Garlands Bring a song-cycle for baritone an piano setting words by Shakespeare which Finzi wrote between 1929 and 1942. Come Away, Come Away Death showed us that Kelsey could scale down his voice without losing its richness or depth of tone. The lovely sense of line was complemented with finely expressive words whilst Llŷr Williams provided a lovely dark piano accompaniment. Who is Sylvia? was performed with charm and musicality, his highly mobile features conveying much. Fear No More the Heat o'the Sun was more than melancholy, with a sense of calm and grounded-ness about the performance. O Mistress Mine had insouciant charm in the piano but quite a serious take on the music by Kelsey. It Was a Lover and His Lass had a nice ease, but with a hint of more serious tone. The whole cycle was characterised by the feeling that the words and the music really complemented each other, and Kelsey's wonderfully vibrant voice was supported by Llŷr Williams' attention to detail on the piano.

The first half concluded with French items. Herod's aria, Vision fugitive from Massenet's grand opera Herodiade describes Herod's erotic drug induced dream of Salome. Heady stuff, but Kelsey's fine grained and superbly stylish account of the vocal line really raise the piece into something special with a strong emotional narrative. Not only was it sung in good French but also with a lovely feel for the correct style.

Ravel's three songs, Don Quichotte a Dulcinee were written in 1932-33 for a film in which Chaliapin played Don Quixote. All three songs use traditional Spanish and Basque dances and Llŷr Williams gave us some catchily attractive rhythms in Ravel's accompaniment. In Chanson romanesque Kelsey was quite contained and subtle, and in Chanson epique he made the repeat invocations in the prayer really build as you sense the line unfolding, then we had delightfully drunken interpretation of Chanson a boire.

The second part opened in English with a group of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs which were written in 1950 for performance by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, inspired in part by Britten's folksong arrangement. Kelsey and Williams gave us The Boatmen's Dance, Simple Gifts, and Long Time Ago. In all three Kelsey showed that he understood how less is more in this repertoire and he did not try to do too much. By contrast Williams had great fun with Copland's imaginative piano accompaniments!

The two concluded with an immense shift, to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, his four songs written in the mid 1870's setting poems by Arseny Golenschchev-Kutuzov (who was a relative). Poetic, but chilling, the texts describe how Death appears in situations in life. In Kolibel'naya a child is dying and Death appears and sings it a lullaby. After a quietly intense opening with a sense of narrative, Kelsey really characterised the different voices of Death and the Mother, without ever getting too operatic. In Serenada a young woman is dying and Death sings her a serenade, which Kelsey made rather catchy, and not a little unnerving. Trepak is death by misadventure and the performers really kept the dance in check, making it rather eerie and creepy. Finally Polkovodets a chilling depiction of the horrors of war with Death as the Field Marshall.

This was a supremely impressive recital which really tested the performers and both came out with flying colours. Kelsey impressed with his confidence and sense style in all the different pieces. Whilst the programme was truly eclectic, Kelsey never gave us the feeling that one size fitted all and I would be glad to hear him in any of this repertoire again. He gave slight hints that his voice was not quite in perfect shape, but this never seemed to disturb him and all his performances were vivid and vibrant. He was beautifully supported and complemented by Llŷr Williams greatly detailed performance.

The audience reaction was enthusiastic and we were treated to an encore. Not a little item, but Rigoletto's Pari siamo from act one of the opera. A thrilling end to a thrilling evening.

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