thu 23/03/2023

Toby Spence, Julian Milford, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Toby Spence, Julian Milford, Wigmore Hall

Toby Spence, Julian Milford, Wigmore Hall

The British tenor returns to the recital platform in music by Schubert and the three Bs: Beethoven, Brahms and Britten

Toby Spence: uncommon insight(c) Mitch Jenkins

Toby Spence’s recovery from thyroid cancer is a cause for rejoicing, but surely it’s time we focused our attention back on his work rather than his medical condition? Apparently not. The pre-publicity for this Wigmore Hall recital made great play of the “profound insights into the human condition” that the singer acquired during his convalescence – a claim that must have ladled extra pressure onto him as he prepared his programme.

Spence, though, is one of the most assured and intelligent of today’s princely generation of tenors, and if he harboured any concern that a copywriter’s puff might make him a hostage to fortune he didn’t show it.

Appropriately for a dismal October evening, the theme was autumnal. Death and eventide, both literal and figurative, suffused the programme in Lieder by a trio of German romantic giants, all of the selections touched by a sense of wistful resignation. In the three songs of Schubert’s Gesänge des Harfners Spence and his ever-pliant accompanist, Julian Milford, projected Goethe’s verses with uncommon insight. The defiance of the central setting, “Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß” ("Who never ate his bread with tears"), was conveyed with startling directness, its closing piano spasm genuinely alarming. A radiant account of “Im Abendrot” ("Sunset glow") stood in marked contrast as Spence’s burnished legato sent Schubert’s hymn of thanks for earthly beauty soaring heavenwards.

His grins to the audience bespoke a man among friends

Beethoven’s florid piano introduction provided the joyous, uncomplicated backdrop against which Spence threw back his shoulders and rhapsodised the five ecstatic syllables of “Adelaide”. Flecks of vocal fragility aside, the tenor’s warm communication in this and the ensuing “Ich liebe dich” ("I love you") was a tonic. His grins to the audience bespoke a man among friends and were as disarming as his tender delivery of Brahms’s immortal “Wegenlied” ("Cradle Song").

The recital had opened with Britten’s atmospheric arrangement of “At the mid hour of night”, and the interval was heralded by the simple, major-key delights of his realisation of Purcell’s Evening Hymn with its florid Hallelujah; but the evening’s dominant work was the centenary composer's post-war Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Composed at 32 by a man still in shock from an encounter with death camp survivors, the cycle is a howl of anguish. Britten shuns melodic beauty in all but one of the nine Sonnets, and when he does allow light to shine, in “Since she whom I lov’d”, the sweet harmonic ache is the more intense for being isolated. Spence sang with utter conviction, occasionally at the expense of clear articulation and evenness of tone, while Milford was fearless in the face of Britten’s’s acrobatic piano writing. The setting of “Thou has made me” was wrenched from both musicians as an angular, adrenaline-fuelled cri de coeur.

Death and eventide, both literal and figurative, suffused the programme


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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This is so good to read about, Mark; wish I could have been there, but many more opportunities will offer themselves, I'm sure. One of the richest recitals I've ever heard was from Spence and the superb Milford, pre his op: a Cheltenham extravaganza, first half Schumann's Dichterliebe, second Janacek's Diary of One Who Disappeared.

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