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Schubert Gesange des Harfners
Janacek The Diary of One who Disappeared

Toby Spence – tenor / Wendy Dawn Thompson – mezzo-soprano / Graham Johnson – piano

Catherine Hopper, Lucie Spickova, Emma Carrington – female chorus


Wigmore Hall 22 January 2007 (BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert)

 

Janacek's The Diary of One who Disappeared is a work which is hard to categorise – Grove's Dictionary contents itself with the label “other vocal”. Scored for 5 voices and piano it exceeds the normal bounds of a song cycle, but falls well short of an opera. Seamus Heaney produced an idiomatic translation which formed the basis of a ‘staged' version directed by Deborah Warner which did the rounds for a spell (I saw it at the Dublin Theatre Festival '99 with Ian Bostridge, Ruby Philogene and Julius Drake) but it was happily restored to an unadorned concert performance at the Wigmore Hall today. (If Janacek had wanted it to be staged, he would have composed it quite differently.)

 

It places considerable demands on the tenor, requiring a formidable range – both tonal and dynamic – and the voice needs to be coloured to suggest a mysterious, almost trance-like state as the imagined presence of the gypsy haunts his every moment, “every time I closed my eyes, her vision arose before me”. Toby Spence delivered on every point, and had just enough energy left for his final triumphant line.

 

Wendy Dawn Thompson's rich mezzo had an appropriately earthy tone and her entry and departure onto the platform were achieved with the speed of a fleeting vision. One moment she was there singing seductively, the next gone! The female chorus was drawn from members of the RAM Opera Course students, whom by chance I had heard in masterclass with Sally Burgess only a few days earlier, and they made a fine effect, invisible in the gallery. .

 

The three Schubert "Harper" songs opened the concert impressively, but were dramatically eclipsed by the Janacek. Both Thompson and Spence were dressed aptly for the Janacek, contributing to the atmosphere - a black scarf to cover Toby Spence's white open neck collar might have been a good touch for the Harper songs?

The pianist gets one full solo section, of which Graham Johnson took full advantage, and he was, as always, indefatigable in his support of the singers.
A less "domesticated" piano might have been more appropriate for Janacek; something like the Erard used for Immerseel's revelatory Ravel recreation; but the power of the the Wigmore Hall Steinway came into its own for the climax.

 

Serena Fenwick

 

 

Picture credits: Mitch Jenkins (Toby Spence); Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL (Wendy Dawn Thompson); Clive Barda (Graham Johnson)