Longing, melancholy and visceral pain – but also a stark beauty – pervade this new recital from Simon Keenlyside, a collection of mostly English songs from the early decades of the 20th century, when the shadows of war loomed large. Rollicking tales of battle and militant flag-waving are conspicuous by their absence; Keenlyside focuses instead on the personal side of war, the physical and emotional toll taken on soldiers and on those left behind.
At the centre of the recital are Butterworth’s settings of poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and it’s hard to imagine these songs in better hands. Keenlyside’s singing explodes with raw emotion. Happy moments are as ardently captured as the deepest sadness or sharpest blow, and his exceptional diction and dynamic control are utterly in tune with Housman’s touching poetry. Ned Rorem’s graphic An Incident and Kurt Weill’s harrowing Beat! Beat! Drums! and Dirge for Two Veterans (all settings of Walt Whitman poems) are a bracing and at times brutal contrast but just as masterful in their execution.
At 52, keenlyside is blessed with a voice that combines youthful brightness with dark mahogany, allowing him to declaim and whisper with equal impact, and to find extraordinary tonal variety between those extremes. Malcolm Martineau’s playing is just as expressive, from the eerie peace of Finzi’s Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun to Ireland’s rugged Sea Fever or the swift march of Somervell’s The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread. A compelling and moving recital.