Lennox Theatre, November 18
Exact contemporaries, John Keats and Franz Schubert were also identical twins in bringing the nascent Romantic movement to full flower. Between them they were responsible for the most lyrical poetry and music ever penned. Schubert infused his music with the purest poetry and Keats his verse with the most mellifluous music. In life they neither met nor corresponded, so what an inspired idea this was to bring the two together; to intermingle John Bell reading Keats with Simon Tedeschi playing Schubert’s solo piano music.
The biographical overlaps of poverty, youthful brilliance, thwarted love, threadbare acknowledgement in their lifetimes and cruelly early deaths are well known. What leapt from the stage in this performance were the overlaps of artistic aspiration: most notably the swings between elfin lyricism and – still maintaining a light touch – an expansive grandeur: in Schubert as high drama; in Keats as classical and medieval allusions.
Both vaulted from modest juvenile works to mature genius with astonishing alacrity, in the process (in Walter Pater’s famous phrase) adding “strangeness to beauty”. Both, too, were natural improvisers, able to compose exceptional works with little subsequent revision.
The music included Impromptus op 90 (numbers 1 and 4), Tedeschi applying precision of articulation without losing the poetry. On the Adagio from the Wanderer Fantasie he emphasised a solemnity that was delicate rather than austere, before the ensuing starburst of melodic rapture, torrential density and tranquil denouement.
Such fevered, almost hallucinogenic invention was matched by Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, in which still life is imbued with such tactile vibrancy, concluding with lines that could be a manifesto for all artists: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Another parallel can be found in the relationship between beguiling melodic cadence and rhythmic surprise, La Belle Dame Sans Merci being an obvious example in Keats. Bell’s (unamplified) reading of such texts maximised the music of the verse. Understated, without downplaying the dancing loveliness, his delivery, in a favourite Keats phrase (that also applies to Schubert) “dissolved” the self – also the ultimate achievement of Shakespeare, a hero and inspiration for both artists.
High art was piled on high art, as the brittle beauty of the first movement of Piano Sonata No 21 was followed by Ode to a Nightingale, with its reverie upon “easeful Death” that, alas, neither man would know.