Ainsley has been singing and recording Schubert for some 17 years now, and in place of the youthful ardour which characterized his early performances we now find a deeper, more subtle understanding, yet still with his distinctive tenderness and perfect balance between ‘Ton und Wort.’ His recent major successes on the operatic stage seem to have informed his interpretations to a very marked degree, especially in the more tempestuous songs.
This carefully designed programme had enough of the more ‘charming’ songs to please the casual listener, yet the finest singing (and playing) came in those set to the intense, melancholy poetry of Mayrhofer. ‘Atys’ is an unjustly neglected song, its fervid telling of the story of the youth driven to madness, castration and suicide by the goddess Cybele not exactly ideal material for lunchtime, but in this performance the ‘unergründlicher Schmerz’ was made real in singing replete with subtlety as well as fervour. ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’ is one of Mayrhofer’s more serene lyrics, and Schubert’s exquisite setting of it drew from Ainsley the most perfect mezza-voce, secure legato line and sense of reverence for the music’s natural phrasing.
As a rule, I can live quite happily without tenors singing the likes of ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’ and ‘Auf der Bruck,’ but here we were treated to performances which concentrated much less on the hearty, ‘I—have—a jolly—horse’ aspects and much more on the dramatic narratives. The lines ‘Und Zärtlichkeit für mich—Ihr Götter! / Ich hofft’ es, ich verdient’ es nicht!’ (Tenderness, for me? Ye Gods! I hoped for that, but didn’t deserve it!’) in the former were sung with the kind of heartfelt openness which always endears a singer to an audience, and in the latter the intensity of the ride was finely assuaged with a last line in which the phrase ‘süsses Ahnen’ was given just enough intensity to make it moving, but without any false swagger or artifice. Roger Vignoles played the rapid chords as though they were the easiest music ever composed.
‘Die Sterne’ was for me the high point of the recital, with such perfect legato line, such sensitivity to the words and such, for want of a better term, ‘Innigkeit,’ that it’s hard to imagine a better performance of this wonderful song. We came back to Mayrhofer again for the encore, with ‘Erlafsee’ an ideal choice to close a programme so finely balanced between ‘wohl’ and ‘weh.’ This first in a series of Schubert recitals will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday May 12th at 1.00, with the remaining recitals performed on Thursdays April 23rd and 30th and May 7th.