Ben Johnson and Sean Shibe at Royal College of Physicians, Dublin, on 23 November 2019

Tonight’s full audience has gathered to see one of the great artists of the modern guitar, Sean Shibe, performing alongside the award-winning English tenor Ben Johnson. It’s an intriguing prospect—the combination of guitar and voice is not heard as often in a classical setting as it once might have been.

Their programme of love songs, spanning five centuries, begins with a clutch of early English lute-songs by John Dowland, Philip Rosseter, and Thomas Morley. Shibe’s guitar adds a smooth warmth to the lute accompaniment, well-matched by the suavity of Johnson’s easy style, his singing sweet and refined. Seated beside each other, the relationship between voice and guitar seems somehow more balanced than the more typical voice-and-piano, with a real sense of dialogue between the two. Given the size of this room, though, Johnson’s position does conceal him from some of the audience, and it might have suited a more intimate venue. The very low lighting (making the excellent programme notes unreadable) unfortunately exacerbates this.

Nevertheless, as the pair turn to songs by Beethoven and Schubert, the sense of their partnership if anything deepens. Hearing the accompaniments played on the guitar instead of piano (using arrangements made at the time) brings a new character and set of colours to these works, as well as a different texture for the singer to blend with. Johnson’s superb technique is telling, with his voice working very much with the instrument, and he scales down the rhetorical power often associated with this material without compromising his voice. It is intriguing to hear ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ [Death and the maiden] delivered with the dream-like stillness that they achieve here, quite a contrast to the darkness usually associated with this song. Another side of early Romanticism is provided by the chamber cavatinas of guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani, operatic miniatures from the age of Bellini and Donizetti, with the central air ‘Alle mie tante lagrime’ [‘Before my many tears…’] especially captivating, both intimate and atmospheric.

A feature of recent Music Network tours has been the commissioning of new works, and tonight’s new piece is ‘Lawra’ by Crash Ensemble guitarist Brian Bolger. Bringing the lute-song concept into the 21st century, ‘Lawra’ sets lutenist Thomas Campion’s lyric ‘Rose-Cheekt Lawra’, and with it evokes a whole raft of associations: linking a key name in Italian renaissance love poetry, an affectionate tribute to Bolger’s own partner, as well as possibly a hint towards its Irish homonym labhra (‘speech’). Bolger’s song is deeply attractive, and its searching and expressive lines for both guitar and singer reach towards moments of poignant stillness. The newness of the work actually brings out the best in both artists, and it will hopefully reach a wider audience.

Alone, Shibe delivers a beautifully expressive account of Bach’s Suite in E minor, its dancing rhythms full of exquisite detail, before being rejoined by Johnson for a set of folksongs. These prove to be an understated foil for the most demanding item of the programme, the rarely-performed song cycle ‘Anon in Love’ by William Walton. Composed for tenor Peter Pears and guitarist Julian Bream nearly sixty years ago, this modern tribute to the lute-song tradition still presents challenges and receives a superb performance tonight. Johnson and Shibe achieve a wonderful balance, both between each other’s musical lines and between the shifting moods of the piece. Together they craft a world of emotions and situations across the tightly dancing spaces of each of the six songs, mixing pert wit, wistful sweetness, dark humour and more. Across this programme, Johnson reveals a voice of sensitive quality and integrity, and a delight to hear, providing a wonderful masterclass for any singers in the audience. Buoyed up by the warm reception, the two artists return for an encore with the children’s folk-song ‘Bingo’, its risky hint of jingoism taken (tonight at least) in good humour.

John Dowland; Come again; Fine Knacks for Ladies
Philip Rosseter: When Laura Smiles; What then is love but mourning
Thomas Morley: It was a lover and his lass
Ludwig van Beethoven: Adelaide
Franz Schubert: Ständchen; Das Fischermädchen; Der Tod und das Mädchen
Mauro Giuliani: Par che di giubilo; Alle mie tante lagrime; Confuso, smarrito
Brian Bolger: Lawra (Music Network Commission)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Suite in E minor, BWV996
A collection of folk songs: The Wealthy Farmers Son (arr. Broadwood); Poor Old Maid (arr. Brown); The Knife Grinder (arr. Cockshott); The Crow (arr. Cockshott); The Nightingale (arr. Sharp)
William Walton: Anon in Love

Ben Johnson (tenor), Sean Shibe (guitar)