Songs of War…and Pleasure!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  A programme of songs on the topic of soldiers and war paired with songs by Francis Poulenc: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Wigmore Hall, London. 5.11.2011 (MMB)

John Ireland: Sea Fever; Vagabond; The Tree Ravens
Arthur Somervell: Into my hear an air that kills; There pass the careless people; White in the moon the long road lies
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Youth and Love; The Vagabond
George Butterworth: When I was one-and-twenty; Think no more, lad; The lads in their hundreds; On the idle hill of summer
Ivor Gurney: In Flanders
Gerald Finzi: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Peter Warlock: The Night
Kurt Weill: Beat! Beat! Drums!; Dirge for two veterans
Francis Poulenc: Songs from Chansons gaillardes; Six mélodies; Tel jour telle nuit

The programme presented at Wigmore Hall, by Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau was an interesting, eclectic and arguably strange grouping of songs and composers. The first half was a sombre affair on the topic of soldiers and war while the second was heavily contrasting, particularly when one considers Poulenc’s Les chansons gaillardes (Naughty – or perhaps coarse – Songs).

Simon Keenlyside has recently launched a CD entitled Songs of War and this recital was mostly intended to promote the work. According to the sleeve notes on the album in question, this selection of songs is a personal one, carefully chosen by Keenlyside himself who apparently also provided the notes. The selection displays a wide variety of composers but the topic of war is not about a particular conflict (though the cover photo of the CD is of a soldier writing a letter by the trenches during World War One); instead, it focus on the themes of longing, homesickness, death, fear, wasted young lives and lost love, which are common to all wars. If the audience was expecting to relax and be entertained, they must have been disappointed during the first half of the recital. It was inevitably heavy and uncomfortably real. Keenlyside’s performance was suitably serious, dark and sombre, full of the solemnity of death, forcing people to think about the unpleasant realities of life. This may have been the reason why he chose a completely contrasting mood for the second half of the programme – and very welcoming it was indeed!

I am not sure what was Simon Keenlyside’s intention in bringing these songs of war to the public attention. Was it to make people think about the horror and folly of war? (Themes that are as relevant today as they were when these songs were written.) Or was it to divulge a large number of composers and poets who wrote about a topic that obviously moves him? Whatever his reasons, the point is that he managed to put together an unusual but coherent recital, deeply thoughtful but also enjoyable. Keenlyside is a complete artist. He is not only a great singer but also an accomplished actor and it was the combination of these skills that created the right atmosphere to bring across the message of the songs. He was in great form and his performance was superb throughout. I found him particularly moving in George Butterworth’s On the idle hill of summer, composed to a poem by Alfred Edward Housman, which examines the madness of war and how pointless it all is. The song is made the more poignant as Butterworth himself was killed, aged only 31, in the Battle of the Somme in August 1916.

Keenlyside is a pure baritone, not a bass-baritone, which means that his voice has that wonderful clarity that one cannot find in a deeper, graver voice. Additionally, when he reaches the range of the E or the F just above the bass staff, his voice retains an irresistible warmth; something that most baritones do not possess. These qualities lend themselves to songs like the ones rendered during the first half of the recital. He sang them all beautifully, with a crispy, luminous tone, brilliant pianissimo and sonorous forte. Keenlyside’s voice is very powerful, made for the large concert hall or the opera house. It was almost too powerful for the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall, bouncing off its walls, sliding under one’s skin and leaving one suspended waiting for something to crash! In one word: Magnificent! I liked all the songs of war but to me, Keenlyside was at his best in John Ireland’s pieces, particularly Vagabond, to a poem by John Masefield; and in Kurt Weill’s dark, compelling rhythmical Beat! Beat! Drums! to a poem by Walt Whitman. A word here about Malcolm Martineau who was exceptionally good throughout and simply outstanding in Weill’s song.

Having exhausted the audience with so much bleakness, Keenlyside and Martineau returned after the interval in an altogether different mood. While during the first half of the recital the songs were linked by their common topic of soldiers and war but were written by many different composers; the second half was entirely dedicated to Francis Poulenc. And what a wonderful roller-coaster of music and singing it turned out to be! Poulenc’s music is to my mind more sophisticated, adventurous and original than any of the composers chosen for the first half of the concert. He successfully mixes witty and ironic elements with sentiment or even melancholy and attractive tunes, as Les chansons gaillardes, clearly demonstrate. These songs were composed to anonymous poems of the 17 th  Century and, in spite of being “juicy”, are exquisitely beautiful. Keenlyside was supreme during the performance of these particular pieces, expressing their naughty humour, proving that he also excels at comedy, making the audience laugh with visible and audible pleasure after all the misery before the break. Martineau’s sympathetic, witty accompaniment was perfectly suited to these songs and for cushioning Keenlyside’s gorgeous tone and perfect French diction. The songs that followed were grouped under the title Six mélodies and were all composed to texts by Guillaume Apollinaire, with the exception of Le disparu, written by Robert Desnos. These songs deal mostly with scenes of France and both music and texts are very graphic and full of vivid images; again, with the exception of Le disparu, which is rather dark and, if one thinks that its author belonged to the French Résistance and was arrested by the Gestapo in February 1944, then it really becomes sinister.

The final set of Poulenc’s songs was the somehow strange Tel jour telle nuit, composed to the surreal poems of Paul Éluard. Musically, I think that this was the weakest of the three Poulenc groups presented in the recital. Nevertheless, the performances of both Keenlyside and Martineau were as outstanding as during the previous pieces. In the end, the audience warmly applauded singer and pianist, with a few, typically English “bravos” (by which I mean subdued!) that were very well deserved. Generously, Keenlyside offered us an unexpected bonus to end a first class musical evening by giving three encores. He began with two songs from Britten’s marvellous Songs and Proverbs of William Blake: The Tiger and The Fly, and finished with the positively delightful and tender An mein Klavier by the incomparable Franz Schubert – the perfect icing on the cake!

Margarida Mota-Bull