Thursday, 31 October 2013

Britten, Poulenc and Schubert: Elizabeth Watts and Ashley Riches at the London Song Festival

Ashley Riches Credit: Debbie Scanlon & Ben Cole
Ashley Riches
Credit: Debbie Scanlon & Ben Cole
Soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Ashley Riches joined pianist Nigel Foster at the London Song Festival on 30 October, for a programme of songs by Britten, Poulenc and Schubert. Their concert at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden on Wednesday 30 October, focussed on three poets Goethe, Pushkin and Maurice Fombeure. A selection of Schubert's settings of Goethe's poems was contrasted with Britten's The Poet's Echo setting Pushkin, and Poulenc's Chansons Villageoise setting Fombeure. Also included in the programme were a group of Pushkin settings by Rimsky-Korsakv, Rachmaninov, Medtner and Cui, allowing us to hear how Russian composers had tackled the same verses as Britten.

Elizabeth Watts
Elizabeth Watts
The programme started with Elizabeth Watts singing three of Schubert's Goethe (1749 - 1832) settings taken from Faust, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Der Konig in Thule and Gretchens Bitte. Gretchen am Spinnrade written when Schubert was 17, is the first of his settings of the great poet. Elizabeth Watts sang with vibrant tone and fine diction, bring a range of colours to the words. Essentially a lyric soprano, she has quite a dramatic element to her voice and brought the song to a very intense climax. Der Konig in Thule followed, a rather more haunted song in which Watts' sense of line contributed to the slow build of the song. Finally Gretchens Bitte which Schubert left unfinished and which was completed by Benjamin Britten. Schubert probably never finished the song because he intended to use it in his project for an opera based on Faust. It is very much a scena, a dramatic scene and Watts took it from calm resignation to more developed drama.

Next came the first of the settings of Pushkin (1799-1837). Though his work is known in the UK, it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the poet to Russian speakers. Here we were treated to two songs on Georgian themes, Rimsky-Korsakov's On the hills of Georgia and Rachmaninov's  O never sing to me again the songs of Georgia, both sung in the original Russian (as were all the Pushkin settings in the programme). Ashley Riches sang On the hills of Georgia, a rather austere, declamatory song which he gave a strong sense of line in a lovely firmly focussed baritone. Watts followed with Rachmaninov's better known song, bringing out the seductiveness of Rachmaninov's setting, giving us some lovely cantilena. Watts is a very vivid and intensely involving singer and made the song seem more intensely passionate than some performers.

Ashley Watts then sang a further group of Schubert settings of Goethe. Ganymed was sung with a great sense of line and and easy naturalness. Here, and in other songs in the evening, Riches displayed a very involving narrative sense. In Meeres Stille everything was calm and dark, with a sense of the infinite and the currents underneath. Finally Musensohn, which was brilliantly characterised and a complete delight, with a very touching ending.

The first half finished with a group of Britten's folk-song settings as a complement to Poulenc's folk-inspired cycle performed in the second half. Britten wrote folk-song arrangements throughout his career, starting whilst still in America and with a final group written for Peter Pears and Ossian Ellis during Britten's final illness. He gave Oft in the Silly Night a lovely sparkling piano accompaniment which gradually fades during the song, this was complemented with Watt's vibrant yet melancholy vocal line. Ashley Riches sang At the Midight Hour; here Britten includes the distant tolling of bells in the magical piano part, complemented by Riches lovely long line. The result also slightly unsettling.

Riches continued with a completely entrancing performance of The Foggy Foggy Dew, clearly relishing the story telling opportunities the song gave. In fact, I rather regretted that we couldn't hear the verses which Britten cut. Finally Watts was equally delightful in Sweet Polly Oliver.

The second half opened with Ashley Riches and Nigel Foster performing Poulenc's Chansons Villageoises, settings of poems evoking the French countryside in the Vienne department by Maurice Fombeure. Poulenc wrote the cycle in 1942, originally for baritone and orchestra but later he produced a version for baritone and piano. Chansons du Clair Tamis (Song of the fine sieve) is almost a nonsense song which Poulenc sets in patter fashion. Riches sang it in brilliant fashion, bringing a remarkable range of colours and characters to the many syllables, and with a lovely dead-pan ending. Le gars qui vont a la fete (The lads who're off to the fair) was again a complete delight, sung by Riches with lively charm and a way with the words. Riches sang with a lovely high placed, focussed tone; not quite a dry as that of Pierre Bernac, but just right for these songs. Riches seems to be something of a vocal chameleon as his timbre changed with each composer, finding the right sound for the songs.

C'est le joli printemps (It's the sweet springtime) was a slower, bitter-sweet number with lovely long lines. After a sonorous piano introduction, Le mendicant (The Beggar) was dark and intense with Riches giving the song immense and unsettling power, in a truly vivid performance. Chanson de la fille frivole (Song of the flighty girl) is another of Poulenc's patter songs, in a brilliant performance from Riches. The final song is the only one in the group which reflects the wartime conditions in which Poulenc was writing, Le retour du seargeant (The return of the sergeant), given as a sort of slow march. Another bitter sweet number in which the sergeant returns home from the wars, but his comrades don't. The song received a finely characterful performance from Riches.

The final group of songs centred on Britten's The Poet's Echo settings of Pushkin which were written for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Britten set Pushkin's Russian in transliterations, and his original settings were corrected by Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich whom Britten and Pears were visiting in Russia in 1965. Instead of performing the songs as a group, Foster interspersed them with settings of the same poems by Russian composers, allowing us to hear different approaches to the same text. Elizabeth Watts sang Britten's The Poet's Echo whilst Ashley Riches sang songs by Nicolai Medtner, Cesar Antonovich Cui and Rimsky Korsakov.

Medtner's Echo was a lyric, but complex setting with a clear melody given its full weight by Riches. In style the song was close to that of Medtner's friend Rachmaninov, but with a more classical feel. Britten's setting of the same text was far more disturbing, with a strongly declamatory feel. Watts sang vibrantly with just the right edge to her tone; evoking distant memories of Galina Vishnevskaya's singing, though with a rather more ingratiating tone. Watts' performance was intense and very strong. Britten's My Heart was quieter, more lyric, with Watts making the piece rather questioning and poignant, though rising to an intense end.

Cui's Angel was rather conventional but lovely, with Riches giving us some lovely quiet moments and rising to powerful climaxes. Britten's setting was darker, with more edge and Watts made it intensely unsettling in a very intense performance. Her tone quite fierce at times but with a beautiful flexibility.

Rimsky-Korsakov's The Nightingale sets a poem by A V Koltsov (1808-1842) related to one by Pushkin. Rimsky-Korsakov gives us a lovely exotic piano part which contrasts with the relatively straightforward vocal line. Riches sang with lovely firm tone, bringing out the piece's essential melancholy. Britten's setting of the original Pushkin poem, The Nightingale and the Rose also had a fascinatingly exotic piano part with the evocation of the song of the nightingale. Set against this was the lovely high cantilena of the vocal line, sung with bright clean tone by Watts. She made of the song something powerful, rather seductive but disturbing and unnerving.

Britten's Epigram was given a vividly characterful performance, sung in strong tones by Watts. The final pairing was Lines written during a sleepless night. Medtner's setting was rather conventional in shape, but receiving an expressive performance from Riches, with a lovely flickering piano accompaniment from Foster. Britten's setting brings out the time element, with a lovely clock sound in the piano an a hauntingly beautiful vocal line. Watts' performance was both evocative and disturbing.

It was fascinating hearing the different approaches to the same poems but I could not help feel that a little of the cumulative power of Britten's cycle was lost by splitting the songs up.

Both singers gave strongly involving performances, and both seemed to have idiomatic Russian. Nigel Foster supported finely from the piano and clearly enjoyed the imaginative touches in Britten's piano parts. A nearly capacity audience gave the performance strong approval and we were treated to one encore, Britten's duet  The Deaf Woman's Courtship.

The London Song Festival continues next week with Songs of Peace and War - Britten and Poulenc in World War Two performed by Ruby Hughes and David Butt Philip on 4 November, see the festival website for further details.

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