Accomplished but Understated Singing from Henk Neven

27/10/2015

Oxford Lieder Festival – Mendelssohn, Schumann, & Brahms: Henk Neven (baritone), Imogen Cooper (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 26.10.2015. (CR)

Mendelssohn: Gruss, Op. 19 No.5
Allnächtlich im Traume, Op. 86 No.4
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, Op. 34 No.2
Jagdlied, Op. 84 No.3
Venetianisches Gondellied, Op. 57 No.5
Der Mond, Op. 86 No. 5
Nachtlied, Op. 71 No.6

Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 24

Mahler, Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:

Der Tamboursg’sell
Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz
Nicht wiedersehen
Trost im Unglück
Rheinlegendchen
Revelge
Urlicht

Henk Neven’s recital for the Oxford Lieder Festival charted the course of high German Romanticism from the innocent dreaming and yearning of Mendelssohn’s songs, through the more anxious and emotionally volatile settings of Schumann’s taut Liederkreis, to the sardonic and nightmarish visions of some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings.

Despite the scope for interpretative insight, Neven seemed never really to engage with the feelings expressed in the songs, singing them with more or less unyielding and unchanging tone colour throughout. To put this in a positive light, one might say his approach was simply one of understatement, and at times this was certainly appropriate and beautiful. It suited the fairly straightforward melodic profiles of some of the Mendelssohn songs here and, in a sense, the otherworldly, mystical vision of Mahler’s Urlicht. But in many of these pieces’ widely shifting, subjective, human emotions, the voice must bring out these aspects explicitly and actively. Even in the mellifluousness of Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges there could have been more bloom in Neven’s singing.

This flaw was more tantalising than grating, since in terms of purely musical technique Neven is accomplished, notwithstanding a somewhat fast vibrato in the upper part of his vocal range which has a tendency to make his tone sound a little strained and flat. His lower register is sonorous and rich, but I wish I could like his singing more, as there is really only a contrast in expression between higher and lower range, with other shades in between lacking.

There were glimpses of interpretative nuance, for example a degree of lyricism in the Mendelssohn, and in some of the melodious stretches of the Mahler settings; there was a touch of humour at the end of Mahler’s Trost im Unglück, and Schumann’s Es treibt mich hin; and some Viennese Schwung in Rheinlegendchen. Also, Neven can sustain concentration and a certain mood over a whole song, such as in the tragedy of Nicht wiedersehen, though meaning and drama were secured largely through crescendo rather than a ratcheting up of tension. But these felicities fell far short of what is possible in these songs, so they largely came across as two-dimensional, and it was wearying to listen to a sort of singing which lacks colour and modulation.

This defect was, perhaps, unfortunately pointed up by virtue of Imogen Cooper’s response and expressive playing at the piano, even in the simple rippling arpeggiated accompaniments to the Mendelssohn songs which were invested with a deeper feeling than they probably deserve. Even more, then, did Cooper’s playing come into its own for the kaleidoscopic range of emotions expressed in Schumann’s Liederkreis, and in the orchestral textures of some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings here, for example in the sinister march of Revelge (which could almost come from one of the Symphonies), or in the Debussyan impressionistic effects which Cooper cultivated in the second half of Urlicht.

Curiously, Neven came to musical life for Schumann’s setting of Heine’s poem Allnächtlich im Traume as the encore; it was a shame that he had not carried over a similar responsiveness to the rest of this programme.

Curtis Rogers

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