Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall

Pitched past pitch of grief’, embody the connecting theme of this
recital: the metaphysical convergence of twilight and death. However, tenor
Toby Spence and pianist Julian Milford presented texts pondering the connection
between the external landscape and the inner mind which offered a wider range
of experiences than Hopkins’ emotional descent into blackness and grief,
soothing us with glimpses of peace, consolation and hopes for regeneration.

Sleep, death and dreams were recurring images in Benjamin Britten’s
oeuvre, and the composer’s arrangement of the folksong, ‘At the mid hour of
night’, introduced us in restrained fashion to the evening’s theme. Sombre,
intoning 5ths in the piano bass tolled the midnight hour. Spence began gently,
even a little reticently; the diction was clear, the voice tender but perhaps
lacking sufficient characterisation to draw out the magical ecstasy of the
brief narrative. A flourish from Julian Milford, sudden and elusive, gave
presence to the wild song ‘which once ’twas rapture to hear’.

Schubert’s ‘Ges‰nge des Harfners’, settings of two songs sung by the
peculiar harper in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre,
followed, Milford quietly strumming the strange harmonies of the opening spread
chords of ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ (Who gives himself to
loneliness) and establishing an eerie air. Goethe’s eponymous hero has
visited the old harper in the hope that he might learn how to dispel his
loneliness, and Spence inflected a moving melancholy note, spinning and
sustaining a beautiful pianissimo line, dynamics and breathing
perfectly controlled. The fairly restrained emotions of this song, were swept
away by the restless piano introduction to ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tr‰nen
afl’ (Who never ate his bread with tears), and by the earnest desperation of
the opening vocal lines, ‘Wer nie die Kummervollen N‰chte/ Auf seinem Bette
Weinend safl’ (who never through the anxious nights/ sat weeping on his bed);
here Spence gave us the first glimpse of the depth of characterisation and
elucidation that he can bring to even the briefest song. The second stanza
build through a powerful crescendo, eerie repetitions focusing the
text’s emotional agitation, complemented by strong harmonic assertions in the

Spence was not entirely comfortable in the third of the set, ‘An die
T¸ren’ (I’ll steal from door to door), sounding a little strained in the
sustained higher lying lines, but the subsequent hymn-like ‘Im Abendrot’
had a beautifully soft ethereality enriched by glimmers of the golden radiance
and red glowing of the setting sun. The final verse faded with quiet
resignation into an acceptance that ‘dies Herz, eh’ es zusammenbricht,/
Trinkt noch Glut und schl¸rft noch Licht’ (this heart, before it breaks,
shall still drink fire and savour light).

The graceful arcs of Milford’s accompaniment introduced Beethoven’s
‘Adelaide’ in which the constancy and devotion of the lover is expressed
through imagery of natural sublimity, modulated only by the evening breezes and
thoughts of the flowers which will bloom on the lover’s grave which inject a
hint of sorrow. This was a confident, dramatic interpretation: Spence brought
an ardent vigour to the visions of nature’s splendour, building to a
quasi-operatic close: the resonant image of the purple leaves which will adorn
the narrator’s resting place shimmering with the name, ‘Adelaide!’, was
matched by the resounding intensity of the vocal delivery. ‘Ich liebe dich’
is a gentler love song, but Spence injected much feeling into the opening
rising 6th, making the most of a simple gesture to convey the
song’s modest truthfulness. Milford lyrically introduced new melodic material
in the second stanza, and the naturalness of the interplay between voice and
accompaniment created a mood of calm, before the diffident return of the
initial vocal phrase to begin stanza three. The arching melodies of the coda
and the repetition of the final lines of text, reassured us of God’s blessing
and protection.

Brahms’ well-known ‘Wiegenlied’ (Cradle song) was delivered without
sentimentality; the pace was fairly slow, the textures rich, the piano’s
swinging rhythms redolent of the blanketing nocturnal presence which embraces
the sleeping child’s crib. Spence’s delicate pianissimo at the
start of the second stanza evoked the otherworldly translucence of the angels
who watch over infant’s dreams. Dusk settled over the Wigmore Hall towards
the close of the first half of the recital. In Brahms’ substantial song,
‘Abendd‰mmerung’ (Twilight), Milford skilfully conveyed the rich musical
narrative which the complex and ever-changing accompaniment articulates.
Recalling those once loved now lost, Spence imbued the closing verses with a
meditative air, slowing the tempo for the final stanza and thoughtfully
colouring the text; the harmonies darkened, before Milford’s perfectly placed
major cadence reassured us once more of the union of heaven and earth which is
reached through sleep and death. An assertive reading of Britten’s
realisation of Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ brought the first half to a
close, the vigour of the repetitions, ‘Hallelujah’, reinforcing this spirit
of hope and replacing the mood of calm with one of confident rejoicing.

The second half of the programme comprised Britten’s 1945 song-cycle,
‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’, and offered weightier, more fervent
explorations of the theme, inspiring some wonderfully impassioned responses
from Spence and Milford. The rhetorical pounding of the accompaniment in ‘Oh
my blacke Soule’ was a disturbing death knell, and provided a springboard for
Spence’s flexible melodic lines as he relished both the harmonic piquancy and
the rhythmic disjunctures of Britten’s imaginative text setting. Once again
the tenor’s impressive pianissimo in the final lines was touching,
but this mood was roughly swept aside by the moto perpetuo of
‘Batter my heart’. The clarity, lightness and evenness of Milford’s
scurrying accompaniment were noteworthy, and the unequivocal incisiveness of
the ending shocking. In ‘O might those sighes and teares’ the performers
made much of Britten’s response to the sonnet’s volta, the
syncopated dissonant interplay of the first eight lines, with their mood of
questioning unrest, giving way to the sparse and harrowing expressions of
disconsolate despair with which the poem ends, powerfully conveyed by
Milford’s thin high piano register and Spence’s slightly hollow vocal

‘Oh, to vex me’ was restless and mercurial, Spence’s voice fleetingly
running through the text, concluding with a disconcerting melisma, ‘when I
shake with fear’. ‘What if this present’ began and ended with arresting
rhetorical gestures, although once again Spence exhibited some slight strain in
the higher forte passages. ‘Since she whom I lov’d’ was
wonderfully affecting, however, the major tonality and warm lyricism offering
succour and relief. Spence revealed his ability to plunge the metaphysical
depths of Donne’s complex verse in ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d
corners’; after the minor key sombreness of the plea, ‘Teach me how to
repent’, the penitent defencelessness of the unaccompanied final line, ‘As
if thou had seal’d my pardon, with thy blood’, was chilling in its

An impetuous account of ‘Thou hast made me’ concluded magisterially,
before the final sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’, provided quiet consolation:
‘And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.’

After what had been a fairly short programme, we were offered two encores
which stayed true to the theme: Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’ — a
memorial for the poet, Matth‰us von Collins, in which the singer lures the
moon and the spirits to visit his dreams — and Britten’s arrangement of
Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’ which gifts us the ultimate musical solace
from life’s grief and fears.

The sustained warm applause was recognition not only the invention and
richness of the interpretations we had enjoyed but also of the strong sense of
good will and affection felt by the audience for a singer who must have faced
his own dark questions during his recent recovery from thyroid cancer. While
the publicity gush that through ‘a tough recovery process and personal
introspection, Toby Spence has gained profound insights into the human
condition’ may have been once step too far in the direction of pretentious
twaddle, the recital revealed that there is no doubting Spence’s musical
intelligence and artistry.

Claire Seymour


Traditional arr. Benjamin Britten, ‘At the mid hour of night’; Franz
Schubert, ‘Ges‰nge des Harfners’, ‘Im Abendrot’; Ludwig van Beethoven,
‘Adelaide’, ‘Ich liebe dich’; Johannes Brahms, ‘Wegenlied’,
‘Abendd‰mmerung’; Henry Purcell, ‘Evening hymn’ (realised Britten);
Benjamin Britten, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’. Toby Spence, tenor; Julian Milford, piano. Wigmore Hall,
London, Friday 11th October 2013

image_description=Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]
product_title=Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]