Friday, 23 November 2012

Christine Brewer at the Wimbledon Music Festival

Christine Brewer's appearances in the UK are not that frequent, so it was an especial pleasure to encounter her in recital accompanied by at the Wimbledon Music Festival at St John's Church, SW19 on Thursday 22 November. The first half of her programme consisted of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs and Richard Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder with the second half being taken up with 20th century songs, all written as encore type pieces for sopranos such as Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell and Helen Traubel.


Perhaps the most touching testaments to Brewer's vocal art came at the very end of the recital, when as an encore she sang Mira - Can you imagine that by Bob Merrill from the musical Carnival. In it, the singer is an ingenue, a girl from a small town in America. Brewer has recorded the song on her first Chandos recital disc and perhaps, as a girl from small town America herself, it has resonance. But at St John's Church, Brewer was an ingénue; after all the Wagner and Strauss, she was still able to make us believe, giving a performance that charmed vocally and dramatically, her instrument still able to be thinned right down to just the right degree of understatement.

It was this sort of control, with a stunning ability to vary the tone from huge to a whisper in a moment, whilst preserving a sense of line, that made the whole recital such a fine achievement. Talking to her after the concert, she said that, for her, doing Strauss's Four Last Songs with piano was harder than with orchestra. There was no sign of this in performance, and it was a joy to hear Brewer's gleaming voice unpressured by the need to rise above the orchestra. Her account of the songs was characterised by a fine attention to the vocal line, which gleamed and flowed, impetuously blooming where necessary. There were a couple of notes where the voice seemed to be under pressure at the top, but there were also some beautifully floated quiet notes.

It wasn't all just about vocal line, she used the text and conjured atmosphere. The opening of the second song was particularly atmospheric, and at the end the voice quieted magically. She was supported here, as elsewhere, by Roger Vignoles' finely nuanced playing.

The third song opening in a quiet, almost conversational tone, though quickly growing and building. Vignoles was particularly fine in the introduction to the final verse, and I found I barely missed the orchestra.  This  verse was thrilling but controlled, a sense of focus and line being preserved at all times. The opening of the fourth song was quietly intense, beautifully placed and expressive but by the last verse Brewer had transported us to a different place, her gleaming tone giving way to the final mysterious line. Brewer has probably sung the cycle countless times, but there was no sense of that here, just a pure joy in communication.

It is often forgotten that Strauss's Four Last Songs  were premiered by Kirsten Flagstad. Despite the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf style of performing them in a lighter manner, there is still something rather wonderful about hearing them sung by a larger voice. Brewer is probably one of the few dramatic sopranos around today to be able to sing them with such power, flexibility and finesse.

Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder set poems of a rather lesser order than those by Hesse and Eichendorff set by Strauss. The interest in the Wesendonck Lieder lies in Wagner's music and the way he transmutes Mathilde Wesendonck's straw into gold. Of course, it helps that he was planning Tristan und Isolde, and the songs do wander rather wonderfully into Tristan land.

Hearing them sung by a singer who performs Isolde, it would be easy to imagine that she might simply  perform them as a cut down version of the opera. But not a bit, instead we got a finely nuanced account of Wagner's songs. The first was quite contained, with a lovely line conveying intensity and some beautifully floated upper notes. The second song allowed her to display a wonderful variety of tone, the stormy moments giving way to intense quiet and the profound hush which preceded the rapturous final line.

In the third song the piano clearly indicated that we were in Tristan land. Brewer matched this with a hollow haunted tone, making far more of the song than the words (the poem is about plants in a greenhouse). Then we were thrilled by the power and laser focus in the fourth song, before returning to Tristan land for the fifth, Dreams. Brewer's confiding intimate tones were pregnant with more than mere dreams, the climaxes rushing back down to nothing.

For the second half, Brewer introduced the songs herself describing them as Echoes of Nightingales, songs written either as encores or to be sung in the last set by some of the great dramatic sopranos of the 20th century. Her old voice teacher had collected the material and much of it is out of print. When I interviewed Brewer in Santa Fe three years ago, she told me about this project and about how she and Roger Vignoles were about to go into the recording studio. This CD has now been issued and it was fascinating to hear these forgotten song.

Brewer also told the audience that she had just had a knee replacement, which made the recital an even more remarkable achievement!

The first number, When I have sung my songs by Ernest Charles, was sung by singers like Kirsten Flagstad and Rosa Ponselle. A lovely, rather old-fashioned, song which was sung with complete commitment and lovely depth to the tone. Walter Kramer's Now like a lantern was sung by Flagstad. It is a beautifully crafted piece and quite dramatic, starting conversationally and developing a big build up with quite an elaborate piano part. Designed to show the voice off, it did so to perfection; Brewer and Vignoles clearly were enjoying themselves.  Sidney Homer's Sing to me, sing wrote the song for his wife the alto Louise Homer, the song was also sung by Helen Trauberl. The song itself is quite big boned and, like most of the songs in this group, quite short.

Paul Sargent's Hickory Hill was written in 1955 and sung by Eileen Farrell. The song has slightly jazzy elements, which Brewer brought out in a quiet, intense way. A tricky style to bring off, there was never any feel of a big voice trying to hard here, simply a delight in communication. A lovely piano part and a haunting end; why don't we hear more of this song?

John La Montaine is another composer from the 1950's and Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening was sung by Eleanor Steber. There were hints of modernism here, though tonal you could detect echoes of Britten. Brewer and Vignoles brought out the song's curious, mysterious quality.

Harold Arlen's Happiness is a thing called Joe was sung by Eileen Farrell. Arlen was a great songwriter and it was lovely to hear this again. It was longer, more developed song than some in this group, Brewer nicely judged the balance between singing and cabaret. It was just right, with expressive words and great fun.

Edwin Arthur was Kirsten Flagstad's pianist and conductor. His song Night had a rather old-fashioned quality, but was a finely crafted art song. Not surprisingly it showed Brewer's voice off nicely and developed to a fabulous climax. Both Eileen Farrell and Helen Traubel sang Vincent Youmans' Through the years. Best know for Tea for TwoThrough the years was a charming Ivor Novello-ish number which Brewer sang expressively.

Finally, a song by Celius Dougherty a composer whose work Brewer came to know partly because his family gave her a number of his unpublished songs. This song, Review, sets a text which Dougherty constructed from various different reviews, it critiques a singer's recital including positive and negative points in great detail. As the critic describes these, the music (and the performers) need to demonstrate, both positive and negative. It was hilarious, but also a bravura show piece.

Brewer and Vignoles sang all of these songs with a total commitment and sense of joy which made them work perfectly.

We were treated to two encores, Mira which I mentioned above, and Frank Bridge's Love went a'riding a glorious end to a glorious recital.

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