In a demanding programme comparing and contrasting some of the song output of Sibelius and Rachmaninov Jacques Imbrailo demonstrated both linguistic flair and remarkable concentration and intensity.
His operatic performances have always had a dramatic truthfulness, a talent to bring the audience to him in big spaces, such as Billy Budd, and in the relative confines of Wigmore Hall, Imbrailo impressed with pliant phrasing, generous tone across a wide range, and consistent control of dynamics. His timbre is always appealing and ingratiating; above all it encompasses pathos and sadness, and these were qualities needed throughout this occasion.
The Sibelius half of this matinee, all sung to texts in Swedish, commenced with a selection from the five Christmas Songs that comprise the composer’s first opus. These settings are rather sombre in mood and reflect on the various Lutheran theological messages of the season to which Imbrailo brought serious sincerity. Of the following Sibelius songs, ‘On a balcony by the sea’ found the brooding expressionistic accompaniment played with great clarity by Alisdair Hogarth and both he and the singer made the fatalistic core at the end of the second stanza of Rydberg’s poem the anguished moment it should be. Hogarth also dispatched the dissonant introduction and the warmish conclusion of ‘Norden’ with point. In ‘Little Lasse’ Imbrailo brought wonderful variety of inflection to the textual repetitions and ‘Did I just dream?’ found the duo similarly capturing the vividness of the text with its sense of idealistic elation tinged with intense emotional pangs.
The Rachmaninov sequence opened with the faintly absurd setting of the composer’s letter of praise to Stanislavsky. Imbrailo caught the inherent humour and the sense of the improvisatory to perfection, Hogarth adding to the gentle comedy when accompanying the postscript where Rachmaninov’s wife seconds his thoughts, and there was a rapt quality to the central section of ‘Here it’s so fine’ where the poet describes being alone with God. The eastern exoticism of ‘Do not sing for me fair maiden’, with its distinct echoes of Borodin’s Prince Igor, started to bring the recital to a livelier close, though Imbrailo and Hogarth interestingly chose to treat ‘Spring waters’ as a herald of excitement in prospect rather than a barnstormer to take-off the roof – much to its benefit.
There was an encore, taken from Sibelius’s Opus One, which brought the programme cleverly full-circle.