Ben Johnson (Wigmore Hall, 8 April 2015)
Singing seems to be a game of two halves for tenor Ben Johnson: the first half soaring and lyrical, the second… not quite as earnest. If you’re familiar with the tunes (or indeed with Johnson) you could tell just by looking at the setlist. The unsuspecting were in for some eyebrow gymnastics the moment the music stand disappeared (after the interval). That’s the musical equivalent of the singer kicking off his/her shoes, loosening the belt, rolling up the sleeves, undoing the tie etc. For my part I should’ve figured something wicked was afoot when I noticed Oronte’s bright red socks in Alcina back in October, my first encounter with Johnson. This time it was an emerald jacket (I was too far back for sock details).
Ben Johnson, tenor
James Baillieu, piano
Paolo Tosti (1846-1916)
Hubert Parry (1848-1918)
English Lyrics, Second Set – No. 3 No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster Op. 140 – No. 3 A soft day
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Pleading Op. 48
Is she not passing fair?
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Sei liriche, series no.1 – No. 6 Pioggia
Johnson’s strengths during the first half were a beautiful middle somewhere between honey and dark honey in colour and similar in texture (you know I like culinary similes), lots of youthful energy and gently floated pianissime. It’s not quite a heroic sound yet but it’s not soft either, despite his ability to reach tender touches. I found his forte singing, though projected without issues, less elaborate/affecting.
Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900)
The Lost Chord
Eric Coates (1886-1957)
I heard you singing
Betty and Johnny
Michael Head (1900-1976)
Songs of the Countryside – No. 6 Money, O!
The little road to Bethlehem
The Stuttering Lovers (arr. Herbert Hughes)
Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919)
Four Indian Love Lyrics
No. 3 Kashmiri Song
No. 4 Till I Wake
Liza Lehmann (1862-1918)
Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral – No. 4 Henry King (Who chewed little bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies)
If I built a world for you
Tell me where is fancy bred?
Rise up and reach the stars
The second half, though on paper a mix of feeling and jest, was in the hall dominated by Johnson’s wicked sense of humour1. You could tell this was a naughty audience because it collectively cackled when the usual Wigmore Hall announcement to “try and supress your (damn) coughing” was played. Then someone promptly coughed. So it was no surprise when the stuttering, Betty and Johnny and Henry King with his tangled string got more attention than the heartfelt pianissime (with which we were spoilt all evening) and the gentleness. There’s a reason he won the Audience’s Prize in Cardiff: a beautiful voice alone is winsome but tell a joke and you have groupies. Whilst initially I was thinking Alfredo and Rodolfo, by the end I thought it’d be a shame for him not to sing properly funny chaps. Or he could “rescue” hopeless ones, like Don Ottavio. Imagine a Don Ottavio who knows he’s vanilla.
The Cloths of Heaven
Orpheus with his Lute
The encore was a return to traditional values, like gentleness and pianissime, though he introduced the last bit with “one more song and then we can all go home”. I for one am game to return for a next time.
- Since words matter even more when humour is involved, I hope he invests a bit of time in sharpening his diction. ↩