An Excellent Recital from Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Eisler, Britten, Wolf, Schubert, Brahms: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 18.12.2013 (MB)

SchoenbergErwartung, op.2 no.1
EislerSpruch 1939; Unter den grünen Pfefferbäumen, In den Hügeln wird Gold gefunden, Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt, Zwei Lieder nach Worten von Pascal, Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann, Verfehlte Liebe, Spruch
BrittenSongs and Proverbs of William Blake
WolfDenk’ es, o Seele!, Um Mitternacht, Wie sollte ich heiter bleiben, Auf eine Christblume II, Blumengruss, Lied eines Verliebten
SchubertAlinde, D 904, Der Wanderer, D 649, Herbstlied, D 502, Verklärung, D 59
BrahmsVerzogen, op.72 no.4, Über die Heide, op.86 no.4, Nachtigallen schwingen, op.6 no.6


An excellent recital from Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau. A few, occasional technical fallibilities aside – fallibilities which, in the greater scheme of things, counted for very little – Keenlyside’s intelligence, musicality, and sincerity offered a wonderful partnership with Martineau’s unfailing mixture of the same. There was no question of the pianist merely ‘supporting’ the singer; this was, as any Lieder-recital must be, a true partnership.

Schoenberg’s ‘other’ Erwartung opened the recital. Its heady harmonic fantasy and already sophisticated version of developing variation marked it out unmistakeably as the composer’s work, hints of Zemlinsky notwithstanding. (The Dehmel text is another thing Schoenberg and Zemlinsky have in common.) It was a pity not to hear more from this most woefully neglected of Lieder composers – and composers more generally – but at least it was something. Schoenberg’s presence also offered a little context to Eisler, whose songs emerged as standing somewhere between the music of his teacher and that of Hindemith. That is not to say that they are derivative, for they are certainly not, but it is the sort of connection one’s mind tends to play when ‘placing’ music. The first and last songs were sung in English, the rest in German. Hearing Brecht’s Spruch 1939 in English brought home not only the impending conflict between Britain and Germany, but also the plight of German exiles, be their exile for racial or political reasons – or both. The piano postlude in Martineau’s hands evoked the persistent if now-distant world of Schoenberg’s op.11 Piano Pieces, whilst Unter den grünen Pfefferbäumen sounded more Berg-like. The hell of Hollywood in Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt was vividly conveyed by darker vocal and piano tone: ‘Paradies und Hölle können eine Stadt sein.’ If the two Pascal songs might sound closer to the world of Neue Sachlichkeit, then Eisler’s deep humanity soon seeped through. Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann offered a suitably backward glance to German Romanticism, whilst continuing to look forward; there could be no retreat. The final Brecht proverb, again in English, provided a moving climax, which refused to conflate sentiment and sentimentality.

Clever programming led into another proverb, this time the first of Blake’s as set by Britten. Martineau revelled in the piano virtuosity. Throughout – and perhaps especially in ‘The Fly’ – one heard Britten’s delight as a great pianist in his instrument. The pity was that sometimes that display masked, on the composer’s part, a relative lack of formal sophistication; or rather, that it did not entirely mask such shortcomings. The devices to which Britten so easily – too easily? – succumbs, be they explicitly pictorial or more abstract, sounded too obvious following the underrated, understated example of Eisler. Blake’s anger and vision of course remained. And even when Keenlyside ran into a little difficulty, in A Poison Tree, his final stanza more than made up for the lapse with convincing vehemence, the composer’s dissonances sounding especially plangent in the following fourth proverb. Britten and Blake make rather odd bedfellows, but this was a committed performance, with Martineau’s piano wanderings splendidly creepy.

With Wolf, following the interval, we stood again on more elevated ground. The care taken with shading in the opening Denk’ es, o Seele! was exemplary, almost akin to a pattern of versicle and response. Um Mitternacht was imbued with the darkness of its titular midnight, but also perhaps with its hope, its opening up of possibilities. The second Auf eine Christblume song reminded us that Wolf’s harmonies are often but a stone’s throw from Schoenberg, whilst Schubertian echoes – impetuosity, forlorn hope, many aspects of harmony and rhythm – haunted the Lied eines Verliebten, providing a telling bridge to Schubert proper.

Alinde benefited from perfectly judged rhythm and disarming delivery: a textbook performance, as it were, followed by a rapt account of Der Wanderer. (Yes, I know, ‘rapt’ is overused, perhaps beyond the point of cliché, but it really seems the mot juste here.) Verklärung possessed due gravity – and yet, it moved. An echt-Brahmsian piano sound was immediately conjured up for Verzogen, Martineau offering just the right degree of harmonic and rhythmic turbulence, which carried over, albeit in different fashion, into Über die Heide, its darkness finely observed by both artists, yet never laboured. The ambiguity of Nachtigallen schwingen was just the ticket for what was anything but a crowd-pleasing conclusion. ‘Eine Blume seh ich, die nicht blühen will.’

Mark Berry

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