City Halls, Glasgow
That he styles himself “Fatboy” on social media, and persists with facial hair that is more shipwreck than seafarer, speaks of a character that does not take his vocal ability too seriously, but tenor Allan Clayton’s talent is immense, even if his girth hardly measures up to his Twitter handle.
That employees of Scottish Opera turned out for his appearance with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto also spoke of the regard in which he is held in that field. Some of the audience currently packing out that company’s Puccini triple bill would have found tickets available had they ventured to Glasgow’s City Hall on Friday, and heard one of the finest tenors in the world currently.
Kuusisto had provided him with a wonderful programme too. It culminated in Britten’s Les Illuminations, the young composer’s settings of Rimbaud which may have been sung by a soprano originally but clearly reflected his own relationship with tenor Peter Pears. There was a range of colours in Clayton’s delivery of Rimbaud’s free verse that a singer of any voice would have struggled to match, and his French diction was immaculate throughout, even in the slightly startling staccato of “Marine”, which is a long way from chanson.
That is true of much of the snatched phrasing of the poetry, but elsewhere Britten gives it more melodious context. The instrumental Interlude clearly pre-figures those of the opera Peter Grimes and the following Being Beauteous had the bonus for SCO devotees of a solo from cellist Su-a Lee. The dubious optimism of the closing Départ was delivered with such poise that applause almost seemed vulgar.
With Kuusisto’s usual panache, the programme had begun with a more recent work that reflected, if not directly referenced, the Britten. Nico Muhly’s Three Songs for Tenor and Violin uses more recent French poetry in translation, with the middle one an instrumental interlude, a sort of fiddle obligato. The SCO strings had a great deal less to do here, but the drone accompaniment was just as precise as Clayton’s measured vocals.
Muhly’s violin concerto for Kuusisto, entitled Shrink (which may or may not be a US psychotherapy reference), is a very different side of the composer, even if acquaintance with his minimalist predecessors is still audible. The 17 string players in the orchestra for the work are deployed with fascinating precision, the third cello, for example, sometimes playing with the basses. With little or no repetition in either solo line or accompaniment, the musical material, based on three different harmonic intervals, is constantly evolving from the first bar to the last, Kuusisto clearly revelling in his own role.
Haydn’s Symphony 104, the “London”, the last of both the twelve he wrote there and of his vast canon, may be from over two centuries earlier but it was more than just a token piece of familiar music in the programme. When this orchestra plays music of that era, the natural horns and trumpets come with an awareness of all the music that flowed from the composer’s innovations. The wind soloists sparkled as usual, but Kuusisto seemed to find a spaciousness in the string sound that was very much his own.