Simon Keenlyside sings Schumann, Wolf, and Schubert at Alice Tully

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Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Simon Keenlyside, baritone

Lincoln Center Great Performers
Starr Theater, Alice Tully Hall
Sunday Afternoon, February 28, 2010, at 5:00

Simon Keenlyside, Baritone
Pedja Muzijevic, Piano

Schumann, Dichterliebe, Op. 48

Wolf, Four Lieder on poems by Mörike
Gesang Weylas
Auf eine Christblume II
Lied vom Winde

Schubert, Nine Lieder
An Silvia
Die Einsiedelei
Freiwilliges Versinken
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus
Die Sterne
Auf der Bruck

There could not have been a more extreme contrast between Renée Fleming’s approach to Strauss’ Four Last Songs, recently reviewed in these pages, and Simon Keenlyside’s in this recital. For Fleming, the texts of Strauss’ songs are cushioned in her gorgeous production and phrasing, while for Keenlyside the text is the beginning and end of a performance which is essentially dramatic, no matter what beautiful moments his extremely varied—and variable—voice may produce along the way, and of course these moments are entirely expressive in purpose. Acting is second nature to him. In most of his selections he created a character before he uttered a phrase.

His absorption in the text begins with his highly personal selection of his material. Among the great songs familiar to every Lied enthusiast, he has sought out relative rarities of special interest to himself. In this recital it was Schubert who furnished the opportunity. So many treasures lie hidden among his extensive vocal oeuvre that digging through his less-known songs in recital is always an exciting and fruitful endeavour.

Keenlyside’s adventurousness doesn’t stop there, however. I’d say it was brave, if not a bit foolhardy to begin his recital with Schumann’s Dichterliebe and its perilous high registers. In the end, of course, he produced an interesting and compelling performance, but his voice took several minutes to settle, and in “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” in the revealing acoustics of the new Starr Theatre, we heard a rather hard top and a variable middle, with a few rather white tones. Eventually, the true character of his voice came through, and we were able to savor his rich low register and the creamy integration of his upper ranges in “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,” and the rest. Characteristically, he sang Schumann’s great cycle in character. At the very beginning he adopted the shy and distracted manner of a young poet, absorbed in words and in his own inner emotions, and given to almost gauche outbursts in his most intense states of mind. We get the impression that Keenlyside’s poet might be a bit unstable. We cannot rule out moments of insanity. In this way Keenlyside not only shows himself to be an operatic singer, who can use his dramatic gifts to reveal new dimensions in the more intimate Lied, which he obviously dearly loves. It is also worth noting that he is entirely able to project character and drama within the confines of a recital, unlike his Metropolitan Opera colleagues, who seem uncomfortable away from costumes and sets, when they sing in concert performances for James Levine. In fact, it has been fashionable for some years to perform song cycles as small monodramas, using costumes and props, as Christine Schäfer did in her filmed performance of Dichterliebe—from the bath! There is nothing so self-conscious in Mr. Keenlyside’s approach. He works without costume, props, or stage director, and his character is entirely his own, intuitive creation. Seen in the context of contemporary Regielied and traditional performances, in which singers straightforwardly sing the set text, he occupies a middle ground, in which he still retains some of the naiveté of the classic voices. The effect can be deceptive. My companion, a leading actor, director, and writer in solo theater, was inclined to take Keenlyside’s manner as his own, reflecting even a lack of assurance as a performer, since the dramatic component lacked the final polish of a directed performance, as well as the distancing that comes with it. In any case, it is clear enough that Keenlyside’s characterization was inspired by the text. In order to accommodate Schumann’s intensely internalized psychological foundations and Heine’s extravagant imagery, which includes historical monuments like the great wine cask of Heidelberg and the Rhine itself as direct referents for the dimensions of the poet’s emotions. Of course there are several cherished performances from the past in which no such effort is made to account for Heine’s imagery and rhetoric, while still doing justice to the expressiveness of his verse. Keenlyside’s elaboration is not strictly necessary, and, while on a dramatic level he expands the work, on the other, he contains its impact by making its expression relative to a psychic center of his own creation. The performance, while not vocally perfect for the reasons I have mentioned, was constantly engaging, expressive, but free of the hysterical excesses some singers bring to it. It also had its moments—many of them, in fact—of beguiling vocal beauty, and elegant phrasing.

In his set of Wolf songs, Keenlyside entered a more rarified aesthetic world, colored by the intense perception of landscapes and flowers, and beyond that the imagining of places so exotic that they exist in the imagination alone. There wasn’t as much room for character building in these individual songs. Keenlyside brought us rather into a fin de siècle salon, where we cold immerse ourselves in Wolf’s lush harmonies and rich melodic lines. Vocally and expressively, these were all on the highest level. It was a joy to hear Wolf so splendidly sung, and with full attention to the poems on which they are based. A song by Wolf is as much a declamation as any of Schubert’s songs of that nature.

Keenlyside’s Schubert set appropriately included his purely lyric, as well as settings of more declamatory poems. In this way he managed to give his audience a fairly comprehensive view of the cultural range of a Schubertiade, which embraced broader humanistic and scientific interests, as well as the lyric and mythology. As a former zoologist he shows a very appealing affection for the Naturwissenschaft of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially the charming observations of animals and insects, which are not so commonly noticed among Schubert’s Lieder. He began with one of Schubert’s most beloved works, his setting of Bauernfeld’s translation of Shakespeare’s song to Sylvia. If you focus on the words, as Keenlyside does, you will notice that Bauernfled’s phrasing and tone are quite different from the Shakespearean musical interlude. Here it becomes a classical laus amatoria, not to mention possible mistakes in English, e.g. kindness = Kindheit (?!). Next came Einsiedelei, a humanistic characterization of a hermit, whose retreat brings him close to simplicity and to nature. Herder’s free version of Pope’s “The Dying Christian to his Soul” is an even more far-reaching humanistic reinterpretation of Pope’s more conventionally Christian sentiments. Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s interesting “Freiwilliges Versinken” makes an excellent pendant to the Pope, proceeding as it does in the opposite direction, but with equal transcendence, as well as a step further in Goethean classicism. Schiller’s powerful and well-known “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” fully asserts classical myth, while Silbert’s “Himmelsfunken” returns to the metaphysics of Pope and Mayrhofer. Rellstab’s “Ständchen,” perhaps the rival of “An Sylvia” as Schubert’s most familiar song offered some comfort food before a foray into the mystic Karl Gottfried von Leitner’s reflections on the stars, “Die Sterne.” Here Keenlyside went to considerable lengths to convey Leitner’s sense of wonder in contemplating the stars in the heavens. In spite of his modern Cambridge education, Keenlyside clearly has a warm sympathy with this esoteric sensibility. The group concluded with a setting of Ernst Schulze’s “Auf der Bruck,” one of Schubert’s less familiar settings of a poem about travel on horseback. This was a brilliant selection, combining as it did the familiar and the less familiar Schubert. The songs were vividly realized in terms of Mr. Keenlyside’s commendable purposes, although I have heard more elegant performances of the “Ständchen” in a more formalistic spirit.

As a whole the program was rather short, taking into account the encores which lay ahead of him. Interspersed with often personal commentary, Simon Keenlyside offered yet more wonderful Schubert and Wolf, until his voice showed some signs of fatigue.

The excellent Pedja Muzijevic, a brilliant pianist who happens to play well with other musicians, provided an accompaniment which was constantly interesting and individual without distracting the audience from his singer. I was as delighted with the afternoon with Simon Keenlyside, who might be described as a more than worthy successor to Heinrich Rehkemper, as his many wildly enthusiastic fans.

7 thoughts on “Simon Keenlyside sings Schumann, Wolf, and Schubert at Alice Tully

  1. Thanks for this vivid and detailed description of a splendid artist! I almost felt that I was there hearing the recital myself. This whets my appetite for the Met’s High Definition simulcast of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet in our local movie theater on Saturday, March 27.

  2. I too enjoyed reading this detailed account of Simon Keenlyside’s performance. Having heard him give a recital recently in the relatively intimate setting of the Temple Church in London, I was especially interested by these comments and I am, needless to say, one of the man’s “wildly enthusiastic fans”
    …..strange that you can express yourself so eloquently, yet you cannot spell “described” correctly! (See final sentence of final paragraph.)

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