Gareth John, Wigmore Hall

This Wigmore Hall recital, with pianist Matthew Fletcher,
presented a varied programme and revealed a confident and technically
accomplished performer.

We began with Schubert, four settings of Mayrhofer and one by Heine which
share a ‘watery’ theme. Fletcher’s exuberant opening hurled us straight
into the wind and storm of ‘Der Schiffer’ (‘The Skipper’) as the
protagonist battles with the teaming rain and lashing waves. John’s strong
voice was a more than equal match for the turbulent weather and waves; the tone
was, however, rather unyielding at times and it took a little while for the
intonation to settle. In ‘Der Strom’ (‘The Stream’), the baritone used
the text effectively, the expression ardent and moving. Best of the bunch was
‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (‘How Ulfru fishes’); here John found a wider tonal
palette which he used to inject drama into the battle of wits between man and
fish. Some intelligent, controlled rubato in the final stanza
initiated a more meditative mood, as the poet-speaker reflects on the brevity
and unpredictability of life: “Die Erde ist gewaltig schˆn,/ Doch sicher ist
sie nicht” (“The world is certainly beautiful/, But safe, it is not”).

Fletcher was alert to textural details and the accompaniment enhanced both
the mood and the narrative of the poetry. In ‘Auf der Donau’ the rapid
left-hand motifs were deftly articulated, imitating the rippling waves, while
at the close a more lyrical mood captured the prevailing melancholy and

A well-shaped performance of ‘Nachtstck’ (‘Nocturne’) concluded the
Schubert sequence, throughout which John’s accurate delivery of the text was
exemplary. He produced a consistently clear vocal line too. It’s a big voice,
and a warm one, with a very full, rich sound; the tone is evenly sustained
across the range, with exceptionally focused lower register. Now, more
diversity of tone, colour and weight would add even greater nuance and

An earnest, urgent reading of ‘Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze!’
(‘How lovely to love in spring!’) initiated a series of songs by Johannes
Brahms. The powerful assertion of this opening song contrasted with the
poignant softness of the yearning lover’s reflection, “Keine Ferne kann es
heilen,/ Nu rein holder Blick von dir” (“No distance can heal it,/ Only a
loving glance from you”) in ‘And den Mond’ (‘To the moon’), where the
rich shimmering accompaniment effectively delineated the silvery, shimmering
rays of the moon.

‘Minnelied’ (‘Love Song’) and ‘Willst du, dafl ich geh’?’
(‘Do you want me to go?’) were both characterised by fervour and passion,
the vocal phrases well-crafted, the accompaniment full of drama and energy. In
contrast, ‘Geheimnis’ (‘Secret’) was wonderfully tender, John using
registral contrasts to exploit different colours which were complemented by the
arpeggiated accompaniment. The performers captured the folk-like simplicity of
‘Sonntag’ (‘Sunday’), making much of the brief, pianissimo
twist to the minor mode. The final stanza of ‘Da unten im Tale’ was
similarly poignant and contemplative, as the poet-speaker poignantly wishes his
former love farewell: “Un I w¸nsch, dafl dir’s anderswo/ Besser mag
gehn” (“And wish that elsewhere/ You might fare better”).

The second half of the recital moved from the nineteenth to the twentieth
century, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte ‡ DulcinÈe,
a set of three songs (‘Chanson romanesque’, ‘chanson Èpique’ and
‘chanson ‡ boire’). This was the last work that Ravel completed before his
death in 1937. Each song employs a different Spanish dance rhythm to portray
Don Quixote as first a noble lover, then a devout soldier and finally a
raucous, rabble-rousing drinker. Fletcher’s accompaniment was full of Iberian
fluidity and charm, although John’s French was less idiomatic than his
flawless German and his voice a little too weighty and unbending to capture the
spontaneity and impulsiveness of the madcap Quixote.

John’s rendering of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel was
a noteworthy element of his winning Kathleen Ferrier Award performance, and to
conclude the programme he offered an incisive and vigorous account of these
R.L. Stevenson settings, one which consistently emphasised the freshness of the
texts. ‘The Vagabond’ established a driving momentum, but in ‘Let Beauty
Awake’ John’s vocal line unfolded more gently above the piano’s
arabesques. The final verse of ‘The Roadside Fire’ was delightfully
expansive, as the traveller reflects on the private moments that he and his
beloved will share: “And this shall be for music when no one else is near,/
The fine song for singing, the rare song tor hear.”

An uplifting airiness characterised ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’, the
supple undulations of the accompaniment creating a magical soundscape
suggesting the “Uncountable angel stars/ Showering sorrow and light”. John
conveyed a true sense of enchantment and wonder in the final lines: “Til lo!
I looked in the dusk / And a star had come down to me.” The strophic
repetitions of ‘Wither Must I Wander?’ reminded us of the headlong march of
the opening song, but here the journey onwards was tinged with sadness in
recognition that while “Spring shall come, come again”, for the traveller
the past will never be re-visited: “But I go for ever and come again no
more.” John countered this sorrow in the following ‘Bright’, the
declamation of the title word ringing with hope and positivity. The concluding
‘I have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope’, with its arioso
recollections of fragments of the preceding songs, brought the recital to an
affecting, moving close.

Claire Seymour


Schubert: ‘Der Schiffer’, ‘Auf der Donau’, ‘Der Strom’,
‘Das Discherm‰dchen’, ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’, ‘Nachtst¸ck’; Brahms:
F¸nf Ges‰nge Op.71, ‘Sonntag’, selection from 49 Deutsche Volkslieder;
Ravel: Don Quichotte ‡ DulcinÈe; Vaughan Williams: Songs of
. Gareth John, baritone; Matthew Fletcher piano. Wigmore Hall,
London, Thursday, 16th May 2013.

image_description=Gareth Brynmor John – Baritone [Photo courtesy of the artist]
product_title=Gareth John, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Gareth Brynmor John – Baritone [Photo courtesy of the artist]