Saturday, 10 April 2010

Farnsworth/Lepper at the National Portrait Gallery

Room 12 of the National Portrait Gallery is a pleasant but potentially inhibiting place for a recital; full of portraits of 18th century artists, fine likenesses of Handel and both JC & JS Bach stare down impassively, self-absorbed. Still, it's neatly tucked away at the heart of the Gallery, minimising distractions, and, being an open-ended atrium is, practically, a bigger space than reporting an audience of 60 or so might make it seem.

This first of two recitals devised by the pianist Simon Lepper featured a cycle of Schumann songs, the 12 Gedachte, Op.35 on poems by Kerner. Before this, baritone Marcus Farnsworth opened the programme with three fine songs by Brahms, Wie bist du, meine Königin, Lerchengesang and Von Ewiger Liebe. His quiet, confiding singing of the second song intimated the quality of his sound and the dry-but-not-dead quality of the room, with Lepper notable for his discretion. Farnsworth's German is also carefully honed and benefits from well prepared vowels which give his legato singing good line (maybe the singer was on best behaviour having clocked the German lieder expert Richard Stokes in the audience).

The Schumann is not a cycle with which I'm familiar but it's full of good music and fine settings. It's also got a few hazards, which Farnsworth negotiated rather well, making music out of them rather than simply coping. A case in point would be the opening, lower register-heavy Lust der Sturmnacht followed straightaway by the devotional Stirb, Lieb und Freud in which the words of the Virgin Mary are set in extraordinary, pop-out tessitura at the upper limits of the baritone range. And as quietly as possible, naturally. Farnsworth's head voice emerged as cultured in such moments. There are such gear changes within songs as well - Auf das Trinkglas sets off in a graduate vein, ebulliently praising the now-empty glass that has been an evening's companion, only for night's canopy to overwhelm the imagery of the scene. Kerner is at his best here and Schumann responds with perfumed music, nicely evoked by Lepper, and with Farnsworth discreetly turning the focus inward.

The Schumann of more celebrated songs is in evidence here and there, most notably perhaps in the overt love songs (a classically Romantic cycle, there's as much here about nature, far off lands and ageing monuments as the missing sweetheart). Stille Tränen toys with the idea of the extended piano postlude, as familiar from Dichterliebe, settling for an elaborate coda after a reprise of the final verse. It's interesting that this most stirring song starts in the same key and manner as the act 2 love duet from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, yet 16 years from being written, but takes in the same ur-Romantic themes of assumption of paradise through sleep, waking from night etc. (albeit inverted by Wagner to coincide with his own philosophy).

The duo ended with an encore of Ivor Gurney's Sleep ('we thought you'd had enough depressing German music, so here's some depressing English music' Farnsworth offered), a welcome constitutional before heading out into the weekend West End.