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REVIEW: Sir Thomas Allen & Joseph Middleton, RNCM

Jonathan Payne on a fantastic opening concert at one of the city's finest venues

Written by . Published on November 11th 2014.

REVIEW: Sir Thomas Allen & Joseph Middleton, RNCM

THIS WAS a suitably glitzy night to celebrate the opening of the multi-million pound refurb of the RNCM Concert Hall (astonishing stat: 515 tons of rubble were taken out of the building during the ten month construction).

He felt unable to match up to the emotions when a young singer. It is like the most accomplished Shakespearean actor taking on Hamlet at 70.

For the inaugurating performance the RNCM were very proud to welcome the world-renowned baritone Sir Thomas Allen. The choice of material isn't particularly celebratory, but it did suit the chilly November evening.

Schubert's song-cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) has been described as an 'intense examination of grief'. Twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller were set to music by Schubert in the months leading up to the composer's death. Detailing the rejection by a lover, a man then wanders through a frozen landscape, accompanied by fear, dashed hopes, many tears and increasing resignation. It is of course seen as the pinnacle of the German Lieder tradition, and there are literally hundreds of recordings available.

Sir Thomas, with just a small notebook as an aide memoire, sung the entire cycle with control and – as far as I am aware (I don't speak German) – perfect clarity.


The first song sets the scene – Gute Nacht –  which is an interesting first title come to think of it; 'I write in passing/On your gate: good night,/So that you may see/That I thought of you'. A chill settled over the audience.

Joseph Middleton, the young pianist, was exemplary, upping the tempo skilfully in Numbness, sustaining chords so they hummed into silence during the beautiful The Linden Tree, skittering notes during The Crow to represent the wheeling birds, the tempo of which was so engrossing the page turner was unconsciously swaying back and forth in rhythm. In the Village had a single insistent repeated note, with the vocal line rising higher and higher. It also contained the lines 'The people are sleeping in their beds/Dreaming of things they don't have'... I'd love to see someone on X-Factor tackle this song (Sir Thomas incidentally sung on the BBC version of Lou Reed's Perfect Day a decade ago).

At times I felt that there was a certain reticence in Allen's physical performance, or stillness. Of course this only amplified the moments when he did move, clasping his arms around himself or, during the strange The False Suns ('Ah, you are not my suns!'), stepping back two steps to rest on the piano as bafflement turned into realisation.

Lucky enough to chat to him afterwards I was astonished to find out that Sir Thomas has only ever sung 'this pinnacle of the Lieder three or four times'. He felt unable to match up to the emotions when a young singer, and there was a certain nervousness with how he was explaining how he approached it now. It is like the most accomplished Shakespearean actor taking on Hamlet at 70.

A fantastic opening concert for one of the finer venues in the city.


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