Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Drama and Passion on Rosalind Plowright's first recital disc

La belle Dame sans merci
La belle Dame sans merci: Rosalind Plowright, Philip Mountford: Romeo Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 6 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Songs from Stradella to Stanford in mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright's first recital disc

Amazingly, despite her long career and striking back catalogue, mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright has never had a solo recital album. This new disc, La belle Dame sans merci on Romeo Records, fills the gap and judging from Plowright's recent interview with me for this blog, we can't expect another. The selection of items is very much a personal one. Accompanied by pianist Philip Mountford, Plowright sings Alessandro Stradella's Pieta Signore, Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones Popolares Espanoles, and songs by Brahms, Tchaikovskty, Kurt Weill, Britten, Ernest Kaye, Frank Bridge, Roger Quilter and Charles Villiers Stanford's La belle Dame sans merci.

They open with Alessandro Stradella's Pieta Signore, which in her intro in the CD booklet Plowright links to the arie antiche learned in college days with Frederic Cox. Whilst we should not expect anything significantly historically informed, Plowright sings with a nice expressivity and her richly supported line is finely flexible. Here, and elsewhere, there is sometimes a slight beat in the voice but it is not intrusive and she combines it with a lovely edge to the tone.

Unlike some recital records, repeated listening to this one confirmed my view of how well it has captured her voice. Not in the sense of hi-fi demonstration recording, but that it really does sound like Plowright in the flesh which is quite a significant feat for recording a large dramatic voice. It is perhaps significant that it was recorded in the fine acoustic of the Menuhin Hall, at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

Rosalind Plowright
Rosalind Plowright
Next comes a group of Brahms songs. Unbewegte laue Luft (Motionless, tepid air) is a darkly sombre piece which develops into something intensely passionate, and Plowright negotiates the busier passagework in a lovely expressive way. Botschaft (The Message) is full of propulsive passion and quite operatic. Whilst the upper climaxes push the voice a little, Plowright brings the song to a triumphal close. Dein blaues Auge (Your blue eyes) is darkly lyrical whilst Von ewiger Liebe (Forever Love) is sombre and grave but with a passion underneath which gradually rises to the surface. Plowright also gives it a strong narrative sense.

Falla's Seven Spanish Popular Songs are entirely more demonstrative, not to say flamboyant repertoire. The songs give an expressive mezzo-soprano like Plowright many opportunities for flashing eyes and seductive glances, richly full of character but never caricature. In the booklet Plowright talks of learning the songs from someone who learned from Conchita Badia who learned them from Falla. Els Pano Moruno starts with a fabulous piano introduction from Mountford. Plowright is richly toned, flexible and highly seductive. Seguidilla Murciana is dramatically vivid. This is a performance which really grabs you. And there is a gentle melancholy, almost keening, to Asturiana. The slow stately repetition in Jota is very hypnotic yet full of promised passion. There is haunting beauty in Nana and great character in Cancion with a lovely rhythmic feel to the piano. Polo finishes the cycle full of vibrant passion (more flashing eyes and seductive glances).

With Tchaikovsky's songs we venture into a darker, more melancholy vein - we move from Carmen to an older, maturer Tatiana. The combination of the Russian language with the rich darkness of Plowright's voice makes the sound-world of these songs profoundly redolent. Not a word, my friend is all Slavic melancholy, whilst in Why lyrical melancholy rises to real drama before a poignant piano postlude. None but the lonely heart is the best known, quite intimate here yet full of warmth, beauty and passion. In these songs it is noticeable how here upper voice throbs under pressure, something characteristic and distinctive, which can be expressive. Can it be day? combines a florid piano part from Mountford with an impassioned, impulsive vocal line.

With the group of Kurt Weill songs we move into, perhaps, slightly surprising territory (though the great Helga Dernesch was also a notable, fearsome Frau Peachum). But having heard the Weill songs on this disc, I would certainly love to hear Plowright as Frau Peachum (a nice addition to her collection of Hags, Bags, Witches and Bitches). Plowright sings Der Abschiedsbrief with a lovely combination of words and singing on the edge of the voice. She and Mountford capture the bitter-sweet sense of these songs. There is a lovely lyrical melancholy to Je ne t'aime pas leading to some real passion; a superb performance. Finally the ever fabulous Surabaya Johnny (a song I first heard sung live by another great mezzo-soprano, Cathy Berberian). Here Plowright combines a sense of line with some really spat out words.

Britten's folk-song arrangements are more familiar recital fare, but Plowright's strong manner and rich tones give the rather wimpy characters in them more backbone and interest than usual. It is also lovely to hear English in the recital, sung with good clear diction (Plowright's diction throughout the disc is exemplary). In The trees they do grow so high, Plowright and Mountford particularly made me admire the way Britten makes the strophic song develop through each verse. Sally Gardens is short but expressive. O Waly, Waly has a characterful slow build to it.

Ernest Kaye was Plowright's father-in-law, a composer new to me. His Tresco is passionate and rhapsodically English. Roger Quilter's Love's Philosophy has a lightly busy piano, with Plowright's dramatic voice giving the song robust passion.

Charles Villiers Stanford's La belle Dame sans merci, CD's title track, is again essentially strophic but within the form Stanford introduces a wonderful variety. Plowright and Mountford bring a lovely variation between the verses, but always anchored in a strong sense of story telling narrative, without ever tipping over into operatic drama. Finally, as a brilliant climax, Frank Bridge's Love went a'riding.

The CD booklet includes full texts and translations, along with Plowright's own introduction to the music.

Throughout, Plowright is finely supported by the supple accompaniment of Philip Mountford.This disc is wonderfully personal in the selection of songs, the singer's own introduction to them and in the very vibrant sense of her vocal personality on the disc. A recital disc such as this will never be a library choice of any of the items on it, but should be essential listening for any lovers of great voices and fine singing.

La belle Dame sans merci
Alessandro Stradella (1639 - 1682) - Pieta Signore [16.10]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Unbewegte laue Luft [3.33]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Botschaft [1.52]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Dein blaues Auge [2.18]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Von weiger Liebe [4.07]
Manuel de Falla (1876 - 1946) - Siete Canciones Popolares Espanoles [12.18]
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) - Not a word, my friend [3.02]
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) - Why [3.05]
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) - None but the lonely heart [3.14]
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893) - Can it be day? [3.34]
Kurt Weill (1900 - 1950) - Der Abschiedsbrief [4.05]
Kurt Weill (1900 - 1950) - Je ne t'aime pas [4.07]
Kurt Weill (1900 = 1950) - Surubaya Johnny [5.47]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - The trees they do grow so high [3.16]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - The Salley Gardens [2.26]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - O Waly Waly [3.28]
Ernest Kaye (1922 - 2012) - Tresco [2.01]
Roqer Quilter (1877 - 1953) - Love's Philosophy [1.29]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - La belle Dame sans merci [6.00]
Frank Bridge (1871 - 1941) - Love went a'riding [1.54]
Rosalind Plowright (mezzo-soprano)
Philip Mountford (piano)
Recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Cobham, Surrey in 2013
ROMEO RECORDS 7302 1 CD [76.00]

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