Shenyang/Simon Lepper review – an elegant musical journey through history

Mahler’s settings of translations of ancient Chinese verses in his symphony Das Lied von der Erde are probably the best known of their kind, but he was not alone in being seduced by the poetry of the Tang dynasty. For this recital, marking the beginning of the Chinese new year, the bass-baritone Shenyang assembled songs by 15 composers (a sequence slightly extended in their Wigmore Hall appearance on the weekend). By no means all familiar, these were mainly 20th-century names, though sometimes more 19th-century Romantic in style.

Entitling the programme Variations of Jade – the stone whose name means pure, explained Shenyang – it was both the variety of style and the variations in the richly expressive detail Shenyang brought to his interpretations that made for compelling listening. Simon Lepper’s teasing out of the descriptive character of the piano writing was crucial, whether complementing the vocal colours or driving the music on.

That the songs were delivered in no fewer that six languages, – Swedish and Czech as well as German, English, French and Chinese – proved the attraction of this poetry for so many, though in the absence of any translations, it was just as well that Shenyang communicated emotions vividly, the voice velvet and phrasing always elegant, even in the impassioned outbursts. He maximised the beautiful economy of Webern’s Die Geheimnisvolle Flöte (The Mysterious Flute), and captured the “whispering farewell” of Peter Warlock’s Along the Stream, while letting rip in Cyril Scott’s A Song of Wine.

But for dramatic force, and an indication of the artist Shenyang has become since winning the 2007 Cardiff singer of the world title, it was Daleko měsíc je od domova (Far is the Moon of Home) the third of Pavel Haas’s Four Songs on Chinese Poetry, which was most powerful. It was one of Haas’s very last compositions, written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp not long before he died in Auschwitz, and Shenyang embraced its tender longing – its sadness as well as an inner rage – with Lepper bringing an equal force to the extended piano solo. With their final contemporary setting by Yinghai Li of Zhang Ji’s A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge, the barriers of time and geopolitics seemed again to disappear.

  • Shengyang and Simon Lepper play at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday 28 January.