Wednesday 10 January 2018

Allan Clayton and James Baillieu in recital at the Wigmore Hall

Allan Clayton (photo Laura Harling)
Allan Clayton (photo Laura Harling)
Purcell (realised Britten), Schubert, Schumann: Kerner Lieder; Allan Clayton, James Baillieu; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 10 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Allan Clayton brings questing intelligence and great lyrical beauty, supported by James Baillieu's fine partnership

The tenor Allan Clayton was joined by pianist James Baillieu for a much anticipated recital at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 9 January 2017. Their programme was quite a classic one, with groups of songs by Purcell and by Schubert, then Schumann's Kerner Lieder, Op.35.  The Purcell songs were sung in Britten's realisations, and included A Morning Hymn, An Evening Hymn, Music for a While, There's not a swain on the plain and In the Black Dismal Dungeon of Despair. The Schubert group consisted of Ganymed D544, Schäfers Klagelied D121, Wandrers Nachtlied II D768, Auf dem See D543, Erster Verlust D226, and Willkommen und Abschied D767.

James Baillieu (photo Kaupo Kikkas)
James Baillieu (photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Allan Clayton scored significant personal success this Summer with his performances in the title role of Brett Dean's opera Hamlet at Glyndebourne, and there is a large-scale element to his lyric tenor voice which, combined with his somewhat larger-than-life stage persona, meant that he filled the Wigmore Hall effortlessly, creating a remarkable buzz in the auditorium (with an audience including many young people). But whilst climaxes in the songs showed the sheer power of Clayton's voice, this was something held in reserve, and he revelled in the hall's ability to allow a singer to capture an audience with a simple thread of sound.

Clayton has a profoundly beautiful voice, but he certainly did not coast along on the back of this and throughout the recital you were aware of his constant searching for expressive devices and details. Perhaps not everything worked perfectly and there was sometimes something rather deliberate about his phrasing, but you sensed that this was a singer who was restlessly questing rather than simply presenting an unquestioning approach to standard repertoire.
Starting with an early group of songs is a very classic move, and Britten's realisations of Purcell were created precisely for this reason, so that he and Peter Pears could perform the songs in recital. My problem with these songs is that the piano part has a little too much of Britten's personality in it, his harmonic daring pops out and the songs feel a little too cultured and manicured. Moving Purcell from Baroque improvisation to 20th century art song on the piano seemed to affect Clayton's approach to the vocal lines, and whilst his performances were exemplary they also seemed, to me, to be a little to artful.

That said we had some simply beautiful moments, with Music for a While sung in a highly intimate, controlled manner, and a nice freedom to In the black, dismal dungeon of despair, whilst An evening hymn moved from a soft caressing tone to moments of virile power.

Schubert's Ganymed was sung with engaging frankness and a sense, in both voice and accompaniment, of the last verse carrying itself away with enthusiasm. Schäfers Klagelied was an elegant lament, but with moments of real drama, whilst Wandrers Nachtlied II was sung with hushed intensity and Auf dem See came over with a sense of fine control and an engaging manner. Erster Verlustwas sung on a thread, elegant and intense, and finally Willkommen und Abschied was almost headlong in its enthusiasm, but both singer and accompanist exhibited tight control. Throughout this group you felt Clayton and Baillieu giving each song a particular approach, bringing out the contrasts in emotions between them.

It was this contrast in emotions which was also brought out in Schumann's Kerner Lieder. Unlike some of Schumann's cycles, this group of 12 settings of poems by Justinus Kerner forms a highly contrasting sequence and in his programme note Richard Stokes suggested that Schumann chose the first four poems because they provided such strong mood swings, reflecting his personality. For all the moments of happiness in the cycle, there is an element of underlying melancholy too. Clayton and Baillieu brought out these contrasts, with Clayton willing to move from quiet intensity to moments of virile passion.

So the virile enthusiams of Lust der Sturmnacht was followed by the quietly controlled Stirb, Liebe' und Freud with Clayton singing with great beauty of tone and Baillieu highlighting the lovely counterpoint in the piano. Wanderlied was vibrant and vigorous, then Erstes Grün moved from delicate charm to more melancholy thoughts in the final verse, a mood which continued into the quietly intense Sehnsucht nach der Walgegend. Clayton's ability to tell a story came out in Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes which was subtly done, contrasting with the lively vigour of Wanderung. Clayton really fined his voice down for Stille Liebe and Baillieu capped this with a finely poetic postlude. The lyrical Frage led to an amazing outpouring of passion in Stille tränen where Clayton allowed his voice to erupt into passionate, almost operatic climaxes, but these still evaporated to nothing and the final postlude was hushed. The final pair of songs Wer machete dich so krank? and Alte Laute were both sung with quiet intensity, the second managing to be more hushed than the first, creating a magical, haunted end to the cycle.

We were treated to an encore, which was similarly thoughtful, Liszt's setting of Goethe's text which Schubert used in Wandrers Nachtlied II; Clayton commented that they included it because they were worried that Schubert's setting was too understated! The Liszt proved magical, and made me hope we might hear Clayton in more Liszt songs.

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