United Kingdom Schubert: Henk Neven (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano). Leeds College of Music, Leeds. 21.4.2017. (CF)
Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin D.795
The 2017 Leeds Lieder Festival got underway on Friday night to what could easily have been an inauspicious start, since the star baritone Simon Keenlyside had to cancel due to sudden illness. Fortunately, the impressive Dutch baritone Henk Neven, a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist, was able to step in with a new programme at short notice.
The festival’s theme this year is ‘Songs of Travel’ and the planned concert with Keenlyside was to include Schubert’s Schwangesang, as well as songs from Sibelius and Vaughan Williams to suit this subject. In its place, and no doubt due to the short notice, Neven opted for Schubert’s first full song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin D.795. It provides a different sort of travel – the young miller’s personal metaphysical voyage of love from first nervous glances of the beloved to bitter heart pangs of jealously and, ultimately, suicidal despair. His faithful friend throughout this ontological journey is the brook beside the mill, whose babblings play out in eddying runs on the piano.
Neven has a strong stage presence and his voice grew in confidence as the cycle progressed, increasingly inhabiting the role of the miller. It was a tremendously persuasive performance, sensitive, thoughtful, and at times deeply moving. His pure top end puts me in mind of Wolfgang Holzmair in its yearning quality, heard to best effect in ‘Der Neugierige’ (‘Curiosity’), ‘Morgengruss’ (‘Morning Greetings’), and the ‘black pearl’ of the cycle, ‘Die liebe Farbe’ (‘The Favourite Colour’), where we already seem to hear the darkling sound-worlds of the late piano sonatas and Winterreise in the piano score. The only complaint I had was that I felt at times Neven was holding back in the more dramatic moments, say the repeated refrain of “Dein ist mein Herz und soll es ewig bleiben” (“Yours is my heart and so shall it remain forever!”) in ‘Ungeduld’ (‘Impatience’); where other baritones might explode and vent their desire or despair more viscerally, Neven chose to control these emotions. Perhaps this interpretive approach will change with time and at least he doesn’t overegg the agony, turning drama into melodrama, which can easily happen in Schubert.
Festival director Joseph Middleton provided typically sensitive and mature piano underpinnings and counterpoints to the miller’s joy, doubt, and final plight. Middleton is fast earning his place among the star piano accompanists of today and yesteryear, and it was easy to envisage the pair recording this and other Schubert song cycles on disc. Tonight this partnership reached its apogee in the lullaby that crowns the 20-song cycle, a devastatingly beautiful notion, in which the brook croons a protective song to the miller who now lies submerged on the riverbed. All the nuance and poignancy of this song was brought out by the two performers, who by this stage were in perfect synchrony.
Neven only did one song as an encore, but what an intelligent selection it was: Am Flusse, D.766, a poem by Goethe in which the songs are said to have flowed into the ‘sea of oblivion’, a link made by the singer in connection with the previous songs he had just sung. It was a delicate way to end an engrossing recital.
So, despite the seemingly inauspicious start of Keenlyside’s absence, this ended up as a truly transporting opening concert from two marvellous talents, and heralds well for the concerts to come. Programme notes were generous and surely aided those in attendance who were new to the work. Finally, readers might like to know that many of the events are being live-streamed on the festival website and this concert is available to view here for a short time. I would whole-heartedly recommend a listen of this remarkable opening night.