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Jonathan McGovern [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega courtesy of IMG Artists]
22 Dec 2011

Jonathan McGovern, Wigmore Hall

2011 has been a good year for baritone Jonathan McGovern: 2nd prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, the Karaviotis Prise at the Les Azuriales Ozone Young Artists Competition, and the John Meikle Duo Prize at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition are just some of the awards he has garnered.

Kirckman Concert Society Series

Jonathan McGovern, baritone; James Cheung, piano. Barbirolli Quartet: Rakhi

Above: Jonathan McGovern [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega courtesy of IMG Artists]


Indeed, with such an illustrious ‘trophy cabinet’, it’s hard to believe that McGovern only graduated from the Royal Academy of Music this year (with a distinction and the ‘Queen’s Commendation for Excellence’).

He certainly brought youthful vigour and ebullience to the Wigmore Hall, bounding onto the platform to perform the seven Schubert lieder which opened this Kirckman Concert Society recital. ‘Die Einsame’ (‘The solitary man’) was suitably light and untroubled in spirit; in typical Romantic fashion, the protagonist finds solace in the natural world, delighting in his ‘quiet rusticity’ as the chirps of the cricket break the silence. Pianist James Cheung’s buoyant bass motifs captured the mood of cheerful ease, while McGovern’s baritone rang out strong and clear, conveying the unflustered confidence of the evening dreamer. ‘Der Strom’ (‘The river’) brought a sudden change: rapid figuration in the piano, shifting harmonies and a plunging, low vocal line suggesting the turbulence and yearning unfulfilment of both the surging river and the poetic imagination. McGovern found it harder, in this lower register, to match the shifting colours of the accompaniment’s tones and shades; while his bass notes have focus and pleasing warmth, the upper range of his voice has greater flexibility and variety of tone.

The simplicity and directness of ‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘An den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), suited him better, the strophic form and the earnest, uncomplicated sentiments drawing forth an open, sincere sound and excellent pronunciation of the texts. Cheung made much of the dancing left hand rhythms of ‘An Sylvia’ (‘To Sylvia’), while in ‘Nachtviolen’ (‘Night violets’) he delicately crafted an intimate air for McGovern’s rapturous homage to the velvet flower’s “sublime and melancholy rays”. The sequence closed with ‘Bei dir allein’ (‘With you alone’); here McGovern certainly brought youthful zeal to the energetic, expanding vocal lines as the protagonist declares that “a youthful spirit swells within me/ [that] a joyful world/ surges through me”. Indeed, bursting impetuously back onto the stage to receive his applause, the beaming baritone seemed fully invigorated by the song’s elated sentiments.

A more sober, but no less charged and committed, performance of Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No.1 followed. The three upper strings of the Barbirolli Quartet serenely placed the thrillingly high chord clusters which commence the opening movement, beneath which cellist Ashok Klouda’s beautifully shaped and resonant pizzicato fragments rang out richly. The quartet created a satisfying drama of opposition — of tonality, texture and tempo; dynamic rhythmic episodes interjected between moments of harmonic stillness. The scherzo (marked by Britten ‘con slancio’ — literally ‘with a dash’) was fittingly reckless and spontaneous, the rhythmic articulation and attack crisp and incisive. In the slow movement, a free variation form in 5/4 time, viola player Alexandros Koustas projected a exquisitely poignant high melodic line above the euphonious, still thirds of the accompaniment. The dynamic counterpoint which launches the final movement was a true dialogue between equals. The sense of overall form was superb, both within and between movements, with the finale skilfully integrating and developing previous heard motifs. This was an accomplished and extremely mature performance of Britten’s youthful composition.

The second half of the programme brought baritone and quartet together in a performance of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, a setting of Matthew Arnold’s lament for the loss of Victorian certainty in the face of modern doubt and despair. McGovern established a more sombre presence now, imbuing the lyrical, unfolding vocal lines with emotional depth and sensitivity, while the quartet conjured the lapping, eddying movements and fluctuating hues of the sea. McGovern’s commitment to the text was sustained and intense, as he sought to do justice to the composer’s detailed word painting, without over-emphasis or undue theatricality.

Songs by Brahms and Wolf concluded the recital. Brahms’ brief ‘Es schauen die Blumen’ (‘All flowers look up’) established a melancholy which was deepened powerfully in ‘Verzangen’ (‘Despairing’), where Cheung’s tumultuous figuration complemented and enhanced the confusion of the protagonist’s heart. The piano also introduced the basic motif in ‘Über die Heide’ (‘Over the Moors’), commencing with three detached rising bass octaves, then a leaping descent, punctuated by low right hand chords - dramatically evoking the echoing footsteps which resound across the moor as the protagonist undertakes an autumnal journey into his memories.

‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Solitude in an open field’) was a high point of the sequence, the beautiful and extraordinary second stanza depicting the thoughts of the dreamer lying in the grass, mood of transcendence and peace: “Mir ist, also ob ich längst gestorben bin/ Und ziehe selig mit durch ew’ge Räume.” (“I feel as if I had died long ago/ and I drift blissfully with them through eternal space.”). McGovern maintained a quiet intensity throughout, with only the briefest sweet swelling before the extended cadence at the end of each strophe. The performers crafted a controlled but troubling narrative of rootless nocturnal wandering in ‘Wie raffft ich mich’. (‘O how I sprang up’). The final landscape of these Brahms’ lieder was the graveyard scene of ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (‘In the cemetery’): in the final stanza the ‘Gewesen’ (‘departed’) on every grave was wonderfully transformed into ‘Genesen’ (‘redeemed’). As the major tonality ‘reconciled’ the former minor mode, McGovern retained the poetic ambiguity: are the dead ‘healed’ because they have been granted eternal life, or because they no longer must suffer mortal life?

In four songs from Hugo Wolf’s Mörike Lieder, Cheung painted a tapestry of many colours: first the piano’s crisp, high trills evoked the weightless flight of the bee in ‘Der Knabe und das Immlein’ (‘The boy and the little bee’), then deep tremolos sweeping upwards to high resonant chords underpinned the lover’s upwards gaze in the final verse of ‘An die Geliebte’ (‘To the beloved’) as he turns his eyes heavenward to witness the stars that smile upon him and kneels to absorb their ‘song of light’. McGovern achieved a rapt intensity here, the silvery tone of his upper range wonderfully capturing the shimmer of the glistening nocturnal sky. The aptly titled ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’) is the last of the Mörike Lieder and the high-spirited, waltz-like account of the unanticipated arrival and hasty departure of an over-eager critic restored the mood of celebration and joy with which the evening began.

Claire Seymour

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