Last Thursday I went to hear Simon Keenlyside and accompanist Malcolm Martineau in recital, presented by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Theater. This was the second concert in their vocal recital series, following a triumphant Stephanie Blythe, and it was just as good in very different ways.
Keenlyside and Martineau strode out onto the darkened stage almost abruptly and plunged right into the Mahler songs in the first set. Keenlyside’s tone is burnished and bronze, and he characterizes the songs deeply but unostentatiously. He seems somewhat self-effacing on stage, yet establishes a direct emotional communication with the audience – I think this isn’t something he does, it’s more something he is. He appears to have a lot of nervous energy and is in almost constant though subtle motion – leaning forward, clenching his hands, wiping his brow.
After the Mahler set came six songs from A Shropshire Lad, set by George Butterworth.
Keenlyside suggested that we not regard these as English pastoral piffle by remembering they were written during wartime – I think he was referring to the poems rather than the settings, but I wasn’t sure. Wartime would give added resonance to Housman’s obsessive theme, the death of young men, but I think these are resonant poems no matter what their context. I disliked Butterworth’s setting of the first song, Loveliest of trees, because that lyric is pretty much perfection on its own and I think the music doesn’t add much.
In fact for me the music in this case distorts the rhythm and flow of the poem. And that’s a problem I have with most musical settings of Housman; his poems gain such energy from the tension between their very deep emotions and their very strict forms that adding a third element seems pointless. Nonetheless Keenlyside made a very convincing case for the rest of them; the final number, Is my team ploughing?, with its powerful contrast between the unearthly hollow high voice of the dead man and the answering strength of his still-living friend, was particularly powerful.
The second half, featuring songs by Richard Strauss, Duparc, and Debussy, was at the same high level. It’s strange that such an intensely dramatic, vividly communicative singer can seem at the same time subdued and inward. He sang a generous four encores, two by Schubert (first and last of the four) and one each by John Ireland and Percy Grainger. He introduced the first by saying that it seemed as if he were always singing Schubert, which was a good thing for him. He introduced Ireland’s Sea Fever by mentioning how much he loved the whales and other marine life of the Pacific coast, and Grainger’s Once I Had a Sprig of Thyme by saying it made him think of his little son.