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Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]
13 Oct 2013

Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall

‘All Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.’ The sentiments of the closing lines of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, ‘No worst, there is none.

Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]


Pitched past pitch of grief’, embody the connecting theme of this recital: the metaphysical convergence of twilight and death. However, tenor Toby Spence and pianist Julian Milford presented texts pondering the connection between the external landscape and the inner mind which offered a wider range of experiences than Hopkins’ emotional descent into blackness and grief, soothing us with glimpses of peace, consolation and hopes for regeneration.

Sleep, death and dreams were recurring images in Benjamin Britten’s oeuvre, and the composer’s arrangement of the folksong, ‘At the mid hour of night’, introduced us in restrained fashion to the evening’s theme. Sombre, intoning 5ths in the piano bass tolled the midnight hour. Spence began gently, even a little reticently; the diction was clear, the voice tender but perhaps lacking sufficient characterisation to draw out the magical ecstasy of the brief narrative. A flourish from Julian Milford, sudden and elusive, gave presence to the wild song ‘which once ’twas rapture to hear’.

Schubert’s ‘Gesänge des Harfners’, settings of two songs sung by the peculiar harper in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, followed, Milford quietly strumming the strange harmonies of the opening spread chords of ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ (Who gives himself to loneliness) and establishing an eerie air. Goethe’s eponymous hero has visited the old harper in the hope that he might learn how to dispel his loneliness, and Spence inflected a moving melancholy note, spinning and sustaining a beautiful pianissimo line, dynamics and breathing perfectly controlled. The fairly restrained emotions of this song, were swept away by the restless piano introduction to ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß’ (Who never ate his bread with tears), and by the earnest desperation of the opening vocal lines, ‘Wer nie die Kummervollen Nächte/ Auf seinem Bette Weinend saß’ (who never through the anxious nights/ sat weeping on his bed); here Spence gave us the first glimpse of the depth of characterisation and elucidation that he can bring to even the briefest song. The second stanza build through a powerful crescendo, eerie repetitions focusing the text’s emotional agitation, complemented by strong harmonic assertions in the piano.

Spence was not entirely comfortable in the third of the set, ‘An die Türen’ (I’ll steal from door to door), sounding a little strained in the sustained higher lying lines, but the subsequent hymn-like ‘Im Abendrot’ had a beautifully soft ethereality enriched by glimmers of the golden radiance and red glowing of the setting sun. The final verse faded with quiet resignation into an acceptance that ‘dies Herz, eh’ es zusammenbricht,/ Trinkt noch Glut und schlürft noch Licht’ (this heart, before it breaks, shall still drink fire and savour light).

The graceful arcs of Milford’s accompaniment introduced Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide’ in which the constancy and devotion of the lover is expressed through imagery of natural sublimity, modulated only by the evening breezes and thoughts of the flowers which will bloom on the lover’s grave which inject a hint of sorrow. This was a confident, dramatic interpretation: Spence brought an ardent vigour to the visions of nature’s splendour, building to a quasi-operatic close: the resonant image of the purple leaves which will adorn the narrator’s resting place shimmering with the name, ‘Adelaide!’, was matched by the resounding intensity of the vocal delivery. ‘Ich liebe dich’ is a gentler love song, but Spence injected much feeling into the opening rising 6th, making the most of a simple gesture to convey the song’s modest truthfulness. Milford lyrically introduced new melodic material in the second stanza, and the naturalness of the interplay between voice and accompaniment created a mood of calm, before the diffident return of the initial vocal phrase to begin stanza three. The arching melodies of the coda and the repetition of the final lines of text, reassured us of God’s blessing and protection.

Brahms’ well-known ‘Wiegenlied’ (Cradle song) was delivered without sentimentality; the pace was fairly slow, the textures rich, the piano’s swinging rhythms redolent of the blanketing nocturnal presence which embraces the sleeping child’s crib. Spence’s delicate pianissimo at the start of the second stanza evoked the otherworldly translucence of the angels who watch over infant’s dreams. Dusk settled over the Wigmore Hall towards the close of the first half of the recital. In Brahms’ substantial song, ‘Abenddämmerung’ (Twilight), Milford skilfully conveyed the rich musical narrative which the complex and ever-changing accompaniment articulates. Recalling those once loved now lost, Spence imbued the closing verses with a meditative air, slowing the tempo for the final stanza and thoughtfully colouring the text; the harmonies darkened, before Milford’s perfectly placed major cadence reassured us once more of the union of heaven and earth which is reached through sleep and death. An assertive reading of Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ brought the first half to a close, the vigour of the repetitions, ‘Hallelujah’, reinforcing this spirit of hope and replacing the mood of calm with one of confident rejoicing.

The second half of the programme comprised Britten’s 1945 song-cycle, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’, and offered weightier, more fervent explorations of the theme, inspiring some wonderfully impassioned responses from Spence and Milford. The rhetorical pounding of the accompaniment in ‘Oh my blacke Soule’ was a disturbing death knell, and provided a springboard for Spence’s flexible melodic lines as he relished both the harmonic piquancy and the rhythmic disjunctures of Britten’s imaginative text setting. Once again the tenor’s impressive pianissimo in the final lines was touching, but this mood was roughly swept aside by the moto perpetuo of ‘Batter my heart’. The clarity, lightness and evenness of Milford’s scurrying accompaniment were noteworthy, and the unequivocal incisiveness of the ending shocking. In ‘O might those sighes and teares’ the performers made much of Britten’s response to the sonnet’s volta, the syncopated dissonant interplay of the first eight lines, with their mood of questioning unrest, giving way to the sparse and harrowing expressions of disconsolate despair with which the poem ends, powerfully conveyed by Milford’s thin high piano register and Spence’s slightly hollow vocal timbre.

‘Oh, to vex me’ was restless and mercurial, Spence’s voice fleetingly running through the text, concluding with a disconcerting melisma, ‘when I shake with fear’. ‘What if this present’ began and ended with arresting rhetorical gestures, although once again Spence exhibited some slight strain in the higher forte passages. ‘Since she whom I lov’d’ was wonderfully affecting, however, the major tonality and warm lyricism offering succour and relief. Spence revealed his ability to plunge the metaphysical depths of Donne’s complex verse in ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’; after the minor key sombreness of the plea, ‘Teach me how to repent’, the penitent defencelessness of the unaccompanied final line, ‘As if thou had seal’d my pardon, with thy blood’, was chilling in its intensity.

An impetuous account of ‘Thou hast made me’ concluded magisterially, before the final sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’, provided quiet consolation: ‘And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.’

After what had been a fairly short programme, we were offered two encores which stayed true to the theme: Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’ — a memorial for the poet, Matthäus von Collins, in which the singer lures the moon and the spirits to visit his dreams — and Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’ which gifts us the ultimate musical solace from life’s grief and fears.

The sustained warm applause was recognition not only the invention and richness of the interpretations we had enjoyed but also of the strong sense of good will and affection felt by the audience for a singer who must have faced his own dark questions during his recent recovery from thyroid cancer. While the publicity gush that through ‘a tough recovery process and personal introspection, Toby Spence has gained profound insights into the human condition’ may have been once step too far in the direction of pretentious twaddle, the recital revealed that there is no doubting Spence’s musical intelligence and artistry.

Claire Seymour


Traditional arr. Benjamin Britten, ‘At the mid hour of night’; Franz Schubert, ‘Gesänge des Harfners’, ‘Im Abendrot’; Ludwig van Beethoven, ‘Adelaide’, ‘Ich liebe dich’; Johannes Brahms, ‘Wegenlied’, ‘Abenddämmerung’; Henry Purcell, ‘Evening hymn’ (realised Britten); Benjamin Britten, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’. Toby Spence, tenor; Julian Milford, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday 11th October 2013

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