Spearheading the younger generation of outstanding British tenors, Allan Clayton has impressed with his charismatic musical personality, such as Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera at Glyndebourne last year. His dramatic gifts were on display this time in the more intimate environment of Wigmore Hall, James Baillieu matching, balancing and supporting Clayton’s persuasive and illuminating readings of Purcell, Schubert and Schumann.
The Purcell gems covered a range of deeply-felt emotions. Clayton’s conversational, communicative approach emphasised the texts’ meanings, making Purcell sound far more contemporary, and Baillieu’s exquisite, concentrated punctuations added to the vocal and literary significance, whether prayerful introspections for the ‘Morning’ or ‘Evening’ Hymns, and ‘Music for a while’ was given an absorbing exploration, evoking the eerie qualities hidden in the text, definitely on the dark side. Humorous relief was injected by ‘There’s not a swain of the plain’ with comic repetitive rhyming, but this turned into sadness and rejected love with ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’.
The Schubert set transported us to the lap of the gods with the radiantly transcendent ‘Ganymed’, as sensual as it is spiritual, Clayton capturing the drama and urgency of Goethe’s words and Schubert’s music. ‘Schäfers Klagelied’ (also Goethe) took us on a different journey, through mountains and valleys and into the heart of the jilted shepherd; the conclusion was heartbreaking. The masterpiece of intimations of mortality that is ‘Wandrers Nachtlied II’ was given with complete understanding. Then ‘Auf dem See’ (On the Lake), a contrasting vision of nature as nurturing and fruitful as well as harbouring disappointment that prepared us for the simplest and most profoundly moving of all Schubert’s songs of lost love, ‘Erster Verlust’ (First Loss), Clayton particularly expressive, creating an interior mirror of grief. The thrilling and rapturous ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ lifted the mood, the racing rhythms of the lover’s journey on horseback, of romance shared, delivered at breakneck speed.
Robert Schumann’s Kerner-Lieder (1840) filled the recital’s second half. He had long been drawn to the “mysterious unearthly power” of Justinus Kerner’s poetry, and Schumann’s twelve Opus 35 settings had many profound resonances with the first-half songs chosen by Clayton and Baillieu. ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’ (Joy in a stormy night) conveyed passion against a violent tempest. Some of the settings brought a vocal tour de force from Clayton, as the songs alternated between bliss and despair, and love and the beauty of nature against the profound grief experienced in loss. With ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes (To the wine glass of a departed friend) Clayton delineated the depths of sorrow with a naturalistic sense of theatre. The conclusion of the cycle brought a stunned silence for reflection before the audience whooped with delight. By way of a florid encore, another ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’, Liszt's version.