Lyricism and Intensity from Toby Spence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Oxford Lieder Festival 8 – Schubert, Britten, Beethoven, Brahms, Purcell: Toby Spence (tenor), Julian Milford (piano), Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 23.10.2013. (CR)

Folksong (realised by Britten): At the Mid Hour of Night
Schubert: Gesänge des Harfners, D478; Im Abendrot
Beethoven: Adelaide, Op 46; Ich liebe dich (‘Zärtliche Liebe’), WoO 123
Brahms: Wiegenlied, Op 49 No 4; Abenddämmerung, Op 49 No 5
Purcell  (arranged by Britten): Evening Hymn
Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op 35

This was a well-devised programme of songs, with the theme of night or twilight at the centre of the first half, Purcell’s Evening Hymn serving as the pivot by virtue of its almost erotic poetry – the soul finding rest in the arms of God – and leading on to the still more passionate, devotional poetry of John Donne as set by Britten. Given his generally quite lyrical voice, these may seem surprising choices for Toby Spence, but the night songs generally emphasised that part of the day as a period for memory and reflection, or rest, rather than regret or anxiety.

Britten’s realisation of the Irish folksong At the Mid Hour of Night was certainly a vehicle for the remembrance of love, and Spence performed this with charming simplicity, aided by the deliberate but fluid and hypnotic accompaniment from Julian Milford. There was a quiet profundity in the performance of the three songs which make up Schubert’s Gesänge des Harfners – to the same words of the Harper from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre whose settings by Wolf had been heard in an earlier recital in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival. Somehow the German words evinced in Spence a greater tension and earnestness than was generally the case in his singing of English. Again in Schubert’s Im Abendrot (not, incidentally, the same poem by Eichendorff, set as the glorious final song of Strauss’s Four Last Songs) Spence evoked a pure, focused seamlessness, matched by a still but glowing accompaniment – enhanced, as Spence pointed out, by Schubert’s own direction to the pianist in his manuscript to play con pedale.

Spence offered more humour and rapture in Beethoven’s Adelaide, especially in the animated melismas set to the beloved’s name at the end of each verse, which Beethoven invests with particular musical significance. Ich liebe dich seemed a little lacking in sweetness and direction, but delight was restored in the performance of Brahms’s Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). Given the wide fame of this piece, it was endearingly ironic that a lapsus memoriae on Spence’s part after a couple lines necessitated a restart of the performance – as though Spence had, understandably, concerned himself more with having the other, more involved, music of the programme lodged in mind than this lollipop. In any case, it was no mean achievement to have undertaken the entire recital without a score, as Spence did, and as no other singer I have yet heard in this Festival has.

There was no cause for concern in Brahms’s Abenddämmerung immediately following, in which Spence displayed vocal dexterity ranging from the passionate in the second verse to a slightly bitter tone in the penultimate as the poet recalls “the beloved hearts of those who have passed away”. Purcell’s Evening Hymn is usually encountered sung by a treble, or at least a soprano, but Spence still infused it with charm and grace, and in any case the lower register perhaps better matched Britten’s ripe realisation of Purcell’s ground bass accompaniment than a more authentic one. A full-voiced account of the final Hallelujahs was in keeping too, even if it subverted the devotional character of the song.

Throughout Britten’s cycle of Donne’s Holy Sonnets Spence imparted the necessary intensity and urgency of tone, whether that was in the assertive call to arms in the address to the soul at the opening of the first Sonnet “On my blacke Soule! No thou art summoned/ By sicknesse, death’s herald”, or the fierce and frenzied singing of the fifth Sonnet, ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’. At the opposite end of the emotional scale, the sorrow and pain expressed in ‘Oh might those sighes and teares’ sounded draining, ending up with an unearthly, almost falsetto quality in its final couplet “for long, yet vehement griefe hath been/ Th’effect and cause, the punishment and sinne”. In his normal upper register Spence usually conveyed a bright, ringing tone, but in the Britten this sometimes became slightly croaky, though not very much to the detriment of his fervent, assertive performance of the more powerful music, especially of the final Sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’, bringing the cycle to a stirring, categorical conclusion.

Two encores reinstated a mood of meditative, quiet sublimity, first with Schubert’s Nacht und Träume, D827, and then Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Music for a while. Both brought out once more Spence’s sustained and lyrical tone. He and Milford worked in close partnership throughout the recital, and a particular highlight in the piano playing was the momentum Milford upheld in the sinuous, undulating accompaniment which winds through Brahms’s Abenddämmerung like the murky twilight it describes.

Curtis Rogers