Friday, 13 January 2017

An evening of contrasts: German lieder & English song at Kensington and Chelsea Music Society

The Arab Hall in Leighton House
The Arab Hall in Leighton House
Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, RVW, Britten, Walton, Roger Quilter; Mary Bevan, Johnny Herford, William Vann; Kensington and Chelsea Music Society at Leighton House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 11 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Mix of German and English songs & duets in this engaging, intimate recital

Kensington and Chelsea Music Society runs a regular concert series in Leighton House, Kensington and on Wednesday 11 January 2017 we went along to hear soprano Mary Bevan, baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann (who is co-chair of the society) in a programme of English and German songs and duets, with music by Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, alongside RVW's Songs of Travel, plus songs by Britten, Walton, RVW and Roger Quilter.

Leighton House is the former home of the artist, Frederic Leighton, and recitals take place in what was his studio, surrounded by his pictures and by his casts of Greek and Roman antiquities. The concert also presents a chance to wander round the house, with its collection of Leighton's pictures but the biggest attraction is perhaps the exotic splendour of the Arab Hall, where we could have a glass of wine at the interval.

Each half of the concert paired German lieder with English song. We started with Mary Bevan singing a group of songs by Robert Schumann, Widmung, Mondnacht and Requiem. Bevan sang with a lovely warm centred tone and a fine shapely line, and created a real sense of engaging intimacy. Widmung was lyrical and flowing, whilst Mondnacht was quiet and inward with long spun lines. In Requiem, the latest song of the three, Bevan sang with controlled intensity & beauty of line, but rising to intense passion at the climax. Throughout William Vann formed an equal partner, bringing the beauty of Schumann's piano writing to the fore.

William Vann then introduced the programme, and throughout the evening the performers introduced the items in an engaging manner. Johnny Herford followed with RVW's Songs of Travel, his first major song cycle setting poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. We started with William Vann's crisply engaging piano, bringing out the music's sense of marching onward. Johnny Herford sang the songs with mellow tone and a lovely sense of inwardness. Whilst he brought our the strong narrative sense of the work, often being demonstrably dramatic, we were also aware of the inner poetry of the songs. The mesmeric beauty of Youth and Love with its lovely textures in the piano, and the poetic mysticism of The Infinite Shining Heavens contrasted with the swagger of the opening song and the ending of Whither Must I Wander. All concluding with the poetic epilogue, I have trod the upward and the downward slope. He had a fine sense of line, but combined this with a superb feel for the words, making us constantly aware of the words and their meaning.

The first half finished with three duets by RVW. Two from The Poisoned Kiss in the arrangement made by Adrian Williams for Albion Records recent disc (see my review), and the Shakespeare setting Fear no more the heat o the sun. In the duets from The Poisoned Kiss, Secret are the sounds of night and It's really time, both singers created a nice sense of character, with the second song having a lovely comic narrative. By contrast Fear no more the heat o the sun was beautifully affecting.

The second half opened with a group of Clara Schumann songs sung by Mary Bevan, and a group of Robert Schumann songs sung by Johnny Herford. Mary Bevan sang three Clara Schumann settings of Friedrich Rückert, Er ist gekommen, Liebst du um Schönheit, and Warum willst du and're fragen. It was noticeable that these songs had far more complex piano parts, and plainer vocal lines than comparable songs by Robert Schumann. Though plain, the vocal lines were certainly not inexpressive and Mary Bevan made Er ist gekommen vividly intense and very dramatic, fully matched by William Vann's stormy piano. Liebst du um Schönheit was very thoughtful and considered, very different to the more familiar setting, and in Warum willst du and're fragen the performers relished the contrast between the rich piano part and the expressively direct words.

Johnny Bevan sang three songs from Robert Schumann's Liederkreis, Op.24. Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen had a deceptive simplicity to it which both performers made very touching. Warte, warte wilder Schiffman was full of vivid drama with a terrific piano part, whilst Warum willst du and're fragen developed deep thoughts out of an apparent simplicity and calm, and finished with one of Robert Schumann's trademark poetic piano postludes.

Mary Bevan then returned for a group of 20th century English songs. Britten's The Salley Gardens had a folk-like simplicity and directness to it, whilst in Walton's Through gilded trellises (his Edith Sitwell setting based on the movement from Facade) Bevan brought seduction and exoticism to the sinuous line supported by characterful playing from William Vann. RVW's Silent Noon was controlled and inward, yet finely word-based, and Bevan fined her voice down beautifully at the end. Finally, Roger Quilter's Love's Philosophy, taken at quite a swift tempo with a lovely flowing piano and expressive words from Mary Bevan.

The evening concluded with a pair of duets by Johannes Brahms. First the characterful comedy of Vergebliches Ständchen and then the surprisingly complex drama of Die Boten der Liebe  (which Johnny Herford was actually singing an alto part, an octave lower).

But this wasn't quite the end what had been an engaging and enjoyable recital, full of interesting turns and contrasts. As a sort of encore the performers got the audience to join in a rendition of Happy Birthday for Johnny Herford's wife, Helena, who was in the audience.

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