21 May 2013

Gareth John, Wigmore Hall

Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

This Wigmore Hall recital, with pianist Matthew Fletcher, presented a varied programme and revealed a confident and technically accomplished performer.

We began with Schubert, four settings of Mayrhofer and one by Heine which share a ‘watery’ theme. Fletcher’s exuberant opening hurled us straight into the wind and storm of ‘Der Schiffer’ (‘The Skipper’) as the protagonist battles with the teaming rain and lashing waves. John’s strong voice was a more than equal match for the turbulent weather and waves; the tone was, however, rather unyielding at times and it took a little while for the intonation to settle. In ‘Der Strom’ (‘The Stream’), the baritone used the text effectively, the expression ardent and moving. Best of the bunch was ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (‘How Ulfru fishes’); here John found a wider tonal palette which he used to inject drama into the battle of wits between man and fish. Some intelligent, controlled rubato in the final stanza initiated a more meditative mood, as the poet-speaker reflects on the brevity and unpredictability of life: “Die Erde ist gewaltig schön,/ Doch sicher ist sie nicht” (“The world is certainly beautiful/, But safe, it is not”).

Fletcher was alert to textural details and the accompaniment enhanced both the mood and the narrative of the poetry. In ‘Auf der Donau’ the rapid left-hand motifs were deftly articulated, imitating the rippling waves, while at the close a more lyrical mood captured the prevailing melancholy and vulnerability.

A well-shaped performance of ‘Nachtstck’ (‘Nocturne’) concluded the Schubert sequence, throughout which John’s accurate delivery of the text was exemplary. He produced a consistently clear vocal line too. It’s a big voice, and a warm one, with a very full, rich sound; the tone is evenly sustained across the range, with exceptionally focused lower register. Now, more diversity of tone, colour and weight would add even greater nuance and depth.

An earnest, urgent reading of ‘Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze!’ (‘How lovely to love in spring!’) initiated a series of songs by Johannes Brahms. The powerful assertion of this opening song contrasted with the poignant softness of the yearning lover’s reflection, “Keine Ferne kann es heilen,/ Nu rein holder Blick von dir” (“No distance can heal it,/ Only a loving glance from you”) in ‘And den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), where the rich shimmering accompaniment effectively delineated the silvery, shimmering rays of the moon.

‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘Willst du, daß ich geh’?’ (‘Do you want me to go?’) were both characterised by fervour and passion, the vocal phrases well-crafted, the accompaniment full of drama and energy. In contrast, ‘Geheimnis’ (‘Secret’) was wonderfully tender, John using registral contrasts to exploit different colours which were complemented by the arpeggiated accompaniment. The performers captured the folk-like simplicity of ‘Sonntag’ (‘Sunday’), making much of the brief, pianissimo twist to the minor mode. The final stanza of ‘Da unten im Tale’ was similarly poignant and contemplative, as the poet-speaker poignantly wishes his former love farewell: “Un I wünsch, daß dir’s anderswo/ Besser mag gehn” (“And wish that elsewhere/ You might fare better”).

The second half of the recital moved from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, a set of three songs (‘Chanson romanesque’, ‘chanson épique’ and ‘chanson à boire’). This was the last work that Ravel completed before his death in 1937. Each song employs a different Spanish dance rhythm to portray Don Quixote as first a noble lover, then a devout soldier and finally a raucous, rabble-rousing drinker. Fletcher’s accompaniment was full of Iberian fluidity and charm, although John’s French was less idiomatic than his flawless German and his voice a little too weighty and unbending to capture the spontaneity and impulsiveness of the madcap Quixote.

John’s rendering of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel was a noteworthy element of his winning Kathleen Ferrier Award performance, and to conclude the programme he offered an incisive and vigorous account of these R.L. Stevenson settings, one which consistently emphasised the freshness of the texts. ‘The Vagabond’ established a driving momentum, but in ‘Let Beauty Awake’ John’s vocal line unfolded more gently above the piano’s arabesques. The final verse of ‘The Roadside Fire’ was delightfully expansive, as the traveller reflects on the private moments that he and his beloved will share: “And this shall be for music when no one else is near,/ The fine song for singing, the rare song tor hear.”

An uplifting airiness characterised ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’, the supple undulations of the accompaniment creating a magical soundscape suggesting the “Uncountable angel stars/ Showering sorrow and light”. John conveyed a true sense of enchantment and wonder in the final lines: “Til lo! I looked in the dusk / And a star had come down to me.” The strophic repetitions of ‘Wither Must I Wander?’ reminded us of the headlong march of the opening song, but here the journey onwards was tinged with sadness in recognition that while “Spring shall come, come again”, for the traveller the past will never be re-visited: “But I go for ever and come again no more.” John countered this sorrow in the following ‘Bright’, the declamation of the title word ringing with hope and positivity. The concluding ‘I have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope’, with its arioso recollections of fragments of the preceding songs, brought the recital to an affecting, moving close.

Claire Seymour


Schubert: ‘Der Schiffer’, ‘Auf der Donau’, ‘Der Strom’, ‘Das Dischermädchen’, ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’, ‘Nachtstück’; Brahms: Fünf Gesänge Op.71, ‘Sonntag’, selection from 49 Deutsche Volkslieder; Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée; Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel. Gareth John, baritone; Matthew Fletcher piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 16th May 2013.