The artists range from the stellar to the emergent, and if Saturday night’s recital is anything to go by, the standard is as high as the ‘usual’ Wigmore evening, but with the added excitement of a much younger audience demographic. Not that I object to an audience composed mainly of oldsters (that is, the 50-100s) such as myself, but it’s good to see a majority of the audience under 40 enjoying a finely balanced, deeply serious evening.
John Mark Ainsley has pretty much made a career out of being surprising: after all, this is an English tenor who never sounds ‘English’ in that dreaded Oxbridge sense; an elegant presence who never comes across as merely that; a Lieder specialist who hardly ever follows conventional ways with a song; and an opera singer who always provides a new and different perspective on a role. I have to admit that my heart sank on seeing the Heine ‘Schwanengesang’ settings as the central works, and grumbled that I would much prefer more Schumann (‘Dichterliebe’ for preference) since Ainsley is an especially sensitive interpreter of that composer, and anyway lyric tenors ought to leave the heavy stuff alone
and so on. However, I was wrong.
Howsoever you order them, the Heine settings are a demanding test for any singer, and Ainsley sang them with his customary subtlety and style, but was also able to produce impressive fortes in ‘Der Doppelgänger’ and ‘Der Atlas,’ the exposed, raw G at bar 34 in the former not so much a howl of outrage as an impassioned plea. The eerie calm created by Malcolm Martineau’s playing in the first part of the song was echoed by Ainsley’s quite chilling phrasing of ‘auf dem selben Platz,’ and his superb diction at ‘was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid’ made the song’s atmosphere all the more hectic. ‘Am Meer’ and ‘Ihr Bild’ provided more expected pleasures with beautiful tone and naturally easy legato line, although there was no self-indulgence with either, the tone’s sweetness readily discarded for a bitter one in ‘dass ich dich verloren hab.’
The Schumann group was a model of Lieder style, ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’ sung without any archness or sentimentality, the line ‘wie ein Lavastrom, der den Aetna entquillt’ proving that it’s possible for a lyric tenor voice to create a dramatically powerful statement, and the final ‘flüstern mit Wehmut und Liebeshauch’ caressed with aching tenderness. Liszt’s settings of Heine are of course much less familiar than those of Schumann, and Ainsley and Martineau brought out their melodic invention and rich harmonies, especially in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume,’ although the Schumann version sung as an encore reminded us of that composer’s greater sensitivity to Heine’s poetry.
The second half of the concert was all French music, Poulenc’s ‘Tel jour telle nuit’ revealing Ainsley’s deep understanding of the composer’s dictum that ‘calmness alone can give intensity to a love poem’ most finely shown in ‘Nous avons fait la nuit.’ Of Gounod’s ‘Cinq Mélodies,’ the highlight was certainly ‘Au rossignol,’ mesmerizingly played and sung with the kind of rapt contemplation and perfect diction which epitomize this singer’s art.