I heard you singing

The Rosenblatt series presented tonight a very English recital: tenor Ben Johnson and pianist James Baillieu performed a programme full of English songs from the last 2 centuries. Mixed within we could also enjoy some Italian pieces from the same period, altogether an unusual programme -which I always find very exciting.

Johnson displayed a wide range of technical resources, together with a beautiful voice colour that maintains an impressive homogeneity throughout the register. We could enjoy beautiful filatti in falsetto long notes, as well as a robust, round center, which he topped with delicate, easy high notes. He may not have a wide, big voice, but it works perfectly for recitals and he uses it wisely.

The beauty of his voice was much more evident on the second half, which was the one he knew by heart. It was a big difference, since we could feel he mastered the pieces: he breathed them and let them flow through his voice, allowing himself to play with the sounds. Especially remarkable were his renditions of Coates’ four pieces, where he also showed his dominion of breath and phrasing –I heard you singing was for me the evening’s highlight.

Some of these wonders were also hinted in the first half, though it took him some time to warm up and get over the phlegms that were bothering him -and obviously hindering his technical abilities. We could also argue perhaps that the first half wasn’t as well known for Johnson, which finally resulted in an uneven approach to these songs.

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Ben Johnson on an © ENO performance

Although he maybe didn’t reach the passion required for Tosti’s pieces or the lyric delicacy for Villiers Stanford’s, he excelled in the crude sonority of Respighi, which gave him the chance to underline the beautiful tensions in the score; he shone also in the simple elegance of Elgar and Sullivan’s songs. However, he completely delighted the audience when he unfolded his comical abilities, making old and young laugh in Henry King or Betty and Johnny.

The chosen repertoire didn’t offer many possibilities to James Baillieu to conquer us from the piano, but he still managed some remarkable moments in the English songs of the first half and especially in the colourful palette of that brilliant orchestrator that was Respighi. We heard him accompany Johnson very attentively, following the singer’s breathing naturally and adapting his dynamics to those marked by the tenor. We missed however a little more intimacy in some song introductions or conclusions, which were always played in an effective way, but could have helped us through this musical journey with a more marked expression.

We can only congratulate the Rosenblatt series for yet another success: these young artists have demonstrated tonight that they have a great potential, that they can do amazing music… We hope to see them grow into the stars they aim to!

Ben Johnson in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, where he won the audience prize
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