British baritone Simon Keenlyside and pianist Pedja Muzijevic presented an exceptional, if not mind-blowing, recital Saturday night at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall. It was the sheer breadth of the sung poetry, as well as Keenlyside’s tremendous range of vocal color and nuance, that left one overwhelmed.
Keenlyside won the Solo Vocal Award at the 2012 Gramophone Awards for his recording “Songs of War.” The first half of Saturday’s performance included roughly half of the 29 English songs on that album. Not all of them are overt statements about war, but they are presented within that context, an idea derived from Keenlyside’s longtime practice of reading military obituaries in the newspapers.
He sang of man’s restlessness and existential bewilderment in both John Ireland’s “Sea Fever” and “The Vagabond.” He sang of love in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Youth and Love” and George Butterworth’s “When I Was One-And-Twenty.” And he sang with condemnation in Kurt Weill’s “Dirge for Two Veterans.” It was an exhaustive undertaking, made all the more dramatic as Keenlyside and Muzijevic performed the entire group of songs without any hiatus.
It was apparent from the start that Keenlyside is a vocal athlete, possessing not only stamina but also the precision to shade any note, any phrase, as he deems it should sound. He is a storyteller who sings with definitiveness. His interpretation of the Walt Whitman-Kurt Weill “Beat! Beat! Drums!” proved frightening and explosive, the second-best performance of the night.
A self-proclaimed hermit, Keenlyside is a prolific singer with a vast repertoire. He is recognized for his superior acting skills and revered for his Hamlet, Papageno and Don Giovanni on the most prestigious opera stages. So it was fascinating to watch him on the concert stage at Spivey Hall. His stage demeanor is curious. He paces, fidgets and sings with downcast eyes, seemingly so consumed by the poetry that artifice is completely cast aside. Twice he blew his nose onstage and then used the hanky as a prop.
After intermission, Keenlyside returned to the stage with several of Hugo Wolf’s Mörike-lieder and selected songs by Franz Schubert, including “Der Einsame,” the musings of one who enjoys being alone just listening to the crickets chirp at night. Perhaps this song has autobiographical significance.
Eduard Mörike was to Wolf as Heinrich Heine was to Schumann, and it is thought that it was Mörike’s poetic repertoire that brought Wolf to musical maturity. In essence, Wolf secured immortality for both of them by composing a body of 53 stellar songs, including the most breathtaking lied of the evening, “Schlafendes Jesuskind.”
Piano and voice are of equal importance in Wolf’s songs, and Muzijevik’s instrumental commentary related adeptly to Keenlyside’s sung poetry, whether it was the chromatic chorale of “Schlafendes Jesuskind” or the 15-measure interlude of “Auf einer Wanderung.”
The Spivey audience persuaded Keenlyside to sing not one but three encores. No operatic showpieces, but more Schubert, and the last one he said is his favorite, “An mein Klavier.” It was a love song to his mellow-toned piano.