Tuesday 13 December 2016

Telling stories: Sir John Tomlinson in Schubert's Swansong

Sir John Tomlinson at a Masterclass at the Royal Opera in 2014
Sir John Tomlinson at a Masterclass at the Royal Opera in 2014
Schubert Swansong (Schwanengesang); Sir John Tomlinson, Christopher Glynn; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 12 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Sir John Tomlinson on vivid form in Schubert's final cycle sung in a new English translation

The Wigmore Hall has been presenting Schubert song cycles in English translations and on Sunday 11 December 2016 we caught Sir John Tomlinson accompanied by pianist Christopher Glynn performing Schubert's Schwanengesang in a new translation by Jeremy Sams.

A song recital by Sir John Tomlinson is very much a thing unto itself, though he scaled down his voice it still filled the Wigmore Hall with ease and his personality was similarly large scale. Even when singing opera, Tomlinson has always showed a superb way with words so it is no surprise that he is a recitalist too. With the new translation Tomlinson sang from crib-sheet, reading the printed words but this never lessened his fine sense of communication with the audience. He also prowled around the stage, physically fully involved in telling the stories in the songs

The last time I heard him in recital, performing Schubert's Winterreise at Middle Temple Hall (see my review), the image of the Ancient Marriner rather came to mind, an old man bearding us with his story. This time it was a different, but no less telling image. Tomlinson's music stand was to the side of the stage, and before each song he would walk over to it and carefully select the correct sheet of words, look at it and then start singing, sheet in hand. After the concert I realised what the image was, that of one's grandfather leafing through photographs and telling the story attached to each one. It made a lovely context for Tomlinson's vivid and vibrant performance.

Whilst not exactly ageless, this was certainly a performance which belied the fact that Sir John celebrated his 70th birthday in September, though it has to be admitted that it was quite a loud performance.
Tomlinson's voice clearly works best at a minimum of mezzo-forte and even singing quietly Bayreuth's Wotan was louder than many lieder singers. Christopher Glynn admirably partnered Tomlinson, balancing the voice carefully and matching the vibrancy of Tomlinson's performance without any loss of subtlety. If you accepted the volume, then there was much to enjoy in the finely burnished tone. It was only in the more hushed numbers, like Serenade (Ständchen) that we realised quite how much management the voice needed, it was in moments like these that the vocal production became a little too mannered. But elsewhere, I was impressed with the sense of vibrant line he was able to produce, allied of course to that superb diction.

We had the words on our printed sheets, but didn't need them, and he made every single one tell. Tomlinson might have sung with an opera singer's expansiveness but he was still concerned over detail, in their own way these were finely telling performances full of lovely touches.

From the first song Love Message we noticed the wonderful resonance of the voice, and Tomlinson was not inhibited about it, instead he used it for expressive purposes. The Warriors Foreboding showed that as well as deep and dark, he could be intimately confiding, but it had to be admitted that Longing for Spring reminded me more of Polyphemous than a reminiscence of a young lover. Far Away was one of the songs where Tomlinson achieved a lovely focused intensity. In Leave-taking we could appreciate Glynn's highly characterful piano, and both showed a sense of the larger scale structure of the song. In Atlas Tomlinson could rightly make the most of his large scale voice, and in Her Picture we had a real feeling of telling story, an eerie one at that. This story telling continued with The Fisher Maiden, and The Town captured the unnerving character of the song, something that continued with By the sea. Doppeganger was rightly the climax of the piece with that last two line, 'So many nights, So long ago' seeming to encapsulate the entire cycle. This was followed by a robustly charming account of Pigeon Post, though I have to confess that I started to have thoughts about pigeon racing (a popular sport in the North of England).

Jeremy Sams translation worked well, and in the hands of someone like Sir John Tomlinson really brought the cycle alive and made a strong case for performances of lieder in translation.

The audience reaction was most appreciative and we were treated to an encore. Not another Schubert song, but a vividly dramatic account of Wotan's final narration from Wagner's Das Rhinegold. A mesmerising way to end the concert.

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