Tim Ashley 

William Berger: Insomnia – review

An idiosyncratic but very fine debut album that depicts a sleepless night in the life of a man separated from his mistress, writes Tim Ashley
  
  

Themed recitals have long been popular with singers and audiences. But baritone William Berger takes the unusual step, on his debut album, of attempting to forge a psychological narrative from the disparate songs that form his programme. Based on performances at the 2011 Lucerne festival and recorded in Edinburgh last February, Insomnia depicts a sleepless night in the life of a man separated from his mistress.

The songs are grouped according to time. So we begin with Mozart's Abendempfindung at 19.30, then follow our protagonist as he contemplates the natural beauty of the night, before conflicting feelings begin to erode his calm. Schubert's Auf der Bruck finds him anxious and impatient at 23.30. At 1am, a burst of energy brings with it a group of serenades by Wolf and Fauré, though by 3am a mixture of regret and erotic fantasy creeps in with Sonnet, specially composed by Raymond Yiu, and Liszt's Oh! Quand Je Dors.

Not all of it works. The stylistic range is, at times, too wide to convey psychological consistency. The underlying issue of whether the relationship is over is muddied by too many songs that suggest the definite presence or absence of a lover. You can't, however, fault Berger's singing. His tone is beautiful, his technique immaculate. He does extraordinary things with breath control in Oh! Quand Je Dors and Wolf's Um Mitternacht, and his sense of line is exceptional.None of the tracks disappoint, though his way with French song – sweepingly sensual rather than reined-in and delicate – is persuasive. Pianist Iain Burnside is wonderfully responsive to his shifts in mood and style. An idiosyncratic disc, but very fine.