Jonathan McGovern, Wigmore Hall

Indeed, with such an illustrious ‘trophy cabinet’, it’s hard to
believe that McGovern only graduated from the Royal Academy of Music this year
(with a distinction and the ‘Queen’s Commendation for Excellence’).

He certainly brought youthful vigour and ebullience to the Wigmore Hall,
bounding onto the platform to perform the seven Schubert lieder which opened
this Kirckman Concert Society recital. ‘Die Einsame’ (‘The solitary
man’) was suitably light and untroubled in spirit; in typical Romantic
fashion, the protagonist finds solace in the natural world, delighting in his
‘quiet rusticity’ as the chirps of the cricket break the silence. Pianist
James Cheung’s buoyant bass motifs captured the mood of cheerful ease, while
McGovern’s baritone rang out strong and clear, conveying the unflustered
confidence of the evening dreamer. ‘Der Strom’ (‘The river’) brought a
sudden change: rapid figuration in the piano, shifting harmonies and a
plunging, low vocal line suggesting the turbulence and yearning unfulfilment of
both the surging river and the poetic imagination. McGovern found it harder, in
this lower register, to match the shifting colours of the accompaniment’s
tones and shades; while his bass notes have focus and pleasing warmth, the
upper range of his voice has greater flexibility and variety of tone.

The simplicity and directness of ‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘An
den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), suited him better, the strophic form and the
earnest, uncomplicated sentiments drawing forth an open, sincere sound and
excellent pronunciation of the texts. Cheung made much of the dancing left hand
rhythms of ‘An Sylvia’ (‘To Sylvia’), while in ‘Nachtviolen’
(‘Night violets’) he delicately crafted an intimate air for McGovern’s
rapturous homage to the velvet flower’s “sublime and melancholy rays”.
The sequence closed with ‘Bei dir allein’ (‘With you alone’); here
McGovern certainly brought youthful zeal to the energetic, expanding vocal
lines as the protagonist declares that “a youthful spirit swells within me/
[that] a joyful world/ surges through me”. Indeed, bursting impetuously back
onto the stage to receive his applause, the beaming baritone seemed fully
invigorated by the song’s elated sentiments.

A more sober, but no less charged and committed, performance of Benjamin
Britten’s String Quartet No.1 followed. The three upper strings of the
Barbirolli Quartet serenely placed the thrillingly high chord clusters which
commence the opening movement, beneath which cellist Ashok Klouda’s
beautifully shaped and resonant pizzicato fragments rang out richly.
The quartet created a satisfying drama of opposition — of tonality, texture
and tempo; dynamic rhythmic episodes interjected between moments of harmonic
stillness. The scherzo (marked by Britten ‘con slancio’ — literally
‘with a dash’) was fittingly reckless and spontaneous, the rhythmic
articulation and attack crisp and incisive. In the slow movement, a free
variation form in 5/4 time, viola player Alexandros Koustas projected a
exquisitely poignant high melodic line above the euphonious, still thirds of
the accompaniment. The dynamic counterpoint which launches the final movement
was a true dialogue between equals. The sense of overall form was superb, both
within and between movements, with the finale skilfully integrating and
developing previous heard motifs. This was an accomplished and extremely mature
performance of Britten’s youthful composition.

The second half of the programme brought baritone and quartet together in a
performance of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, a setting of Matthew
Arnold’s lament for the loss of Victorian certainty in the face of modern
doubt and despair. McGovern established a more sombre presence now, imbuing the
lyrical, unfolding vocal lines with emotional depth and sensitivity, while the
quartet conjured the lapping, eddying movements and fluctuating hues of the
sea. McGovern’s commitment to the text was sustained and intense, as he
sought to do justice to the composer’s detailed word painting, without
over-emphasis or undue theatricality.

Songs by Brahms and Wolf concluded the recital. Brahms’ brief ‘Es
schauen die Blumen’ (‘All flowers look up’) established a melancholy
which was deepened powerfully in ‘Verzangen’ (‘Despairing’), where
Cheung’s tumultuous figuration complemented and enhanced the confusion of the
protagonist’s heart. The piano also introduced the basic motif in ‘‹ber
die Heide’ (‘Over the Moors’), commencing with three detached rising bass
octaves, then a leaping descent, punctuated by low right hand chords –
dramatically evoking the echoing footsteps which resound across the moor as the
protagonist undertakes an autumnal journey into his memories.

‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Solitude in an open field’) was a high point of
the sequence, the beautiful and extraordinary second stanza depicting the
thoughts of the dreamer lying in the grass, mood of transcendence and peace:
“Mir ist, also ob ich l‰ngst gestorben bin/ Und ziehe selig mit durch
ew’ge R‰ume.” (“I feel as if I had died long ago/ and I drift blissfully
with them through eternal space.”). McGovern maintained a quiet intensity
throughout, with only the briefest sweet swelling before the extended cadence
at the end of each strophe. The performers crafted a controlled but troubling
narrative of rootless nocturnal wandering in ‘Wie raffft ich mich’. (‘O
how I sprang up’). The final landscape of these Brahms’ lieder was the
graveyard scene of ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (‘In the cemetery’): in the
final stanza the ‘Gewesen’ (‘departed’) on every grave was wonderfully
transformed into ‘Genesen’ (‘redeemed’). As the major tonality
‘reconciled’ the former minor mode, McGovern retained the poetic ambiguity:
are the dead ‘healed’ because they have been granted eternal life, or
because they no longer must suffer mortal life?

In four songs from Hugo Wolf’s Mˆrike Lieder, Cheung painted a
tapestry of many colours: first the piano’s crisp, high trills evoked the
weightless flight of the bee in ‘Der Knabe und das Immlein’ (‘The boy and
the little bee’), then deep tremolos sweeping upwards to high resonant chords
underpinned the lover’s upwards gaze in the final verse of ‘An die
Geliebte’ (‘To the beloved’) as he turns his eyes heavenward to witness
the stars that smile upon him and kneels to absorb their ‘song of light’.
McGovern achieved a rapt intensity here, the silvery tone of his upper range
wonderfully capturing the shimmer of the glistening nocturnal sky. The aptly
titled ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’) is the last of the Mˆrike
and the high-spirited, waltz-like account of the unanticipated
arrival and hasty departure of an over-eager critic restored the mood of
celebration and joy with which the evening began.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Jonathan McGovern [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=Kirckman Concert Society Series
product_by=Jonathan McGovern, baritone; James Cheung, piano. Barbirolli Quartet: Rakhi
Singh, violin; Katie Stillman, violin; Alexandros Koustas, viola; Ashok Klouda, cello. Wigmore Hal, London, Monday 19th December 2011.
product_id=Above: Jonathan McGovern [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega courtesy of IMG Artists]