Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Keith Bruce, four stars

IT is some years since baritone Simon Keenlyside was a popular principal on the Scottish Opera stage, but his name still attracts a capacity house on an evening when every auditorium at the national conservatoire was doing good business. His restless performing style in recital remains unique too. He appears, but certainly is not, ill-at-ease, rarely looking the audience in the eye, grabbing at his jacket buttons or the piano lid, making awkward gestures as if he is breaking in a new pair of arms and sometimes pacing away from his accompanist.

All of which Martineau is well acquainted with, and matches with unflappable sensitivity to the wide variation in volume and tone, as well as range of notes, that Keenlyside brings to his colourful programme. When he returns to Schubert for his encores, the singer says it is “going home”, and certainly his first half selection, mostly from the posthumously-published Schwanengesang collection, brims with expressive passion – and real muscle from both men in the Wagnerian Der Atlas. The earlier exceptions are the epic narrative of An der Mond in einer Herbstnacht, Der Wanderer and Goethe’s Geheimes, in a carefully ordered sequence that spoke of years of study.

After the interval came the comparative rarity of Poulenc’s nine-song Tel jour, telle nuit, setting the words of surrealist Paul Eluard, which often seem chosen for sonic effect rather than meaning, notably “A toutes brides” which was indeed delivered at full tilt, and the following “Une herbe pauvre” which includes notes far beyond standard baritone range.

Keenlyside’s concluding English song selection might be considered wilfully perverse for Burns Night. Peter Warlock’s Hilaire Belloc settings, and – even more so – the 16th century Piggesnie were closest in spirit to the Poulenc. Percy Grainger’s The Sprig of Thyme sets a Lincolnshire folk song and although Arthur Somervell did set some poems by Scotland’s national bard, it was a song drawn from Housman’s Shropshire Lad that we heard. Which left Ralph Vaughan Williams to supply the sole Scots content of the night with three of his settings of the Songs of Travel by Robert Louis Stevenson.