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Friday, 25 October 2019

Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place

Frieda Belinfante & Henriëtte Bosmans
Frieda Belinfante & Henriëtte Bosmans
Les Étoiles - Robert Schumann, Henriëtte Bosmans, Hector Berlioz, Pauline Viardot, Claude Debussy, Judith Weir, Johannes Brahms; Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 Otober 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
From the evocative orientalism of Berlioz, to the classicism of Debussy and the fascinating elliptical music of Judith Weir, music for voice, cello and piano

As part of Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped season, Les Étoiles on Thursday 24 October 2019, brought together soprano Ruby Hughes, cellist Natalie Clein and pianists Julius Drake and Matan Porat in a programme which centred on four works for voice, cello and piano, the premiere of Judith Weir's On the Palmy Beach, Pauline Viardot's Les Étoiles, Hector Berlioz' La Captive and Johannes Brahms' Zwei Gesänge für eine Altstimme mit Bratsche und Klavier in a version for soprano, cello and piano. To this mix was added the cello sonata by the Dutch composer Henriëtte Bosmans, Claude Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and Cello Sonata, and four late songs by Robert Schumann. An interesting mix which took the basic premise of Viardot, Brahms, Berlioz and Weir and created a fascinating mix of relations and influences, with as the wild card the sonata by Henriëtte Bosmans.

Pauline Viardot as Gluck's Orpheus in 1860
Pauline Viardot as Gluck's Orpheus in 1860
We opened with the group of late Schumann songs, performed by Ruby Hughes and Julius Drake. Though perhaps the first thing that we noticed was Hughes stunning dress which made her look as if she had stepped out of a Mughal miniature!

We have come to appreciate late Schumann, and his late style is no longer compared depreciatingly to the songs written in his great lieder-jahr of 1840. The later ones are often more pared down, less melodically grateful and with complexities in the piano accompaniment (and as I found at the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2016, a great debt to J.S.Bach). Hughes and Drake gave us Röselein, Röselein! Op.89 No.6, Die Blume der Ergebung Op.83 No.2, Mädchen-Schwermut Op.142 No.3, Die Sennin Op.90, and Requiem Op.90, with flowers being very much a linking motif through the group. Hughes sang with a fragile expressiveness, bringing clarity and poignancy to her silvery tones, and a vocal line which was strongly expressive for all the fragility. She was wonderfully partnered by Drake who found a similar precision and delicacy in the piano accompaniments, complementing Hughes voice. Frankly, there were moments when I longed for Hughes to let go a bit more and to be more openly expressive and explicitly romantic. This was a very particular view of Schumann, yet one which was profoundly beautiful in its way.

Next came the Cello Sonata by Henriëtte Bosmans, played by Natalie Clein and Matan Porat. Bosmans is a strangely unknown figure, born in 1895 and died in 1952, she had a major career as a concert pianist as well as a composer, and was evidently friendly with Benjamin Britten. And her personal life seems to have been quite colourful, for a period living a bohemian life with cellist Frieda Belinfante. Musically, Bosmans was at first more traditional, influenced by the Germanic musical tradition learned from her musical Dutch family where the violinist Joseph Joachim was a visitor. It was only later, after lessons with the Dutch composer Willem Pijper, that her style became more advanced.


Judith Weir (Photo Suzanne Jansen)
Judith Weir (Photo Suzanne Jansen)
The Cello Sonata of 1919 is a relatively early work, and is a big Romantic four-movement piece where from the opening notes the influence of Brahms can be felt in the large scale Romanticism and lush textures of the first movement. But also woven in seems to be a feeling for the way Faure wrote for such instrumental combinations too, this was particularly true in the second movement where, the way the cello sang over a flowing piano part really invoked the French composer. The third movement also involved a singing cello part, this time over a throbbing piano with the harmonies developing into something rather haunting, leading into the strongly vigorous finale. From this sonata, Bosmans seems to have a very distinct and particular voice, and her music seems to be well worth exploring.

The first half concluded with a pair of songs performed by Hughes, Clein and Drake, Berlioz' Le Captive and Viardot's Les Étoiles. Berlioz wrote La Captive, setting Victor Hugo, originally in 1832 whilst in Rome after winning the Prix de Rome. Originally a simple strophic song, Berlioz developed it in 1848 in a version for orchestra which is through composed. Here we had a version for piano and voice with cello obbligato. The outlines of the original strophic song could still be traced, but overlaying this were wonderful complexities, with voice and cello often intertwining over a gentle piano accompaniment. Hughes' delicate and supple vocal line contrasted with Clein's more vivid romanticism to create something atmospheric.

When Berlioz arranged Gluck's Orpheus operas (the French and Italian versions) into a single composite with a female mezzo-soprano in the title role, the singer in question was the great Pauline Viardot. She was also a composer, and her song Les Étoiles sets a poem by Afansy Fet, and dates from 1862, two years after she performed Orpheus. The song is perhaps more traditionally conventional than the Berlioz, but appealing nonetheless. The cello part initially was more of an accompanying figure, though the instrumental sections which surrounded the verse shifted the focus, and the final verse was rather more throbbingly Romantic.

Pierre Louÿs's Les Chansons de Bilitis are basically high art porn, erotic poetry supposedly discovered on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus and translated from the Ancient Greek by Louÿs, in fact they were written by Louÿs himself and are very much in the tradition of male erotic fantasy in art. It says much of Debussy's art that his settings of three of them, here performed by Hughes and Drake, successfully defuse a lot of the overheated eroticism and instead Debussy applies a cool classicism. Giving us not big Romantic gestures, but supple word setting and the sort of subtle interplay between text and music which brings his opera Pelleas et Melisande to life, and in fact listening to these songs you half expect Melisande to walk in an join the unnamed protagonist.

This cool classical exoticism of the writing suited Hughes voice, as did the French language, and she and Drake brought a love suppleness and subtlety to the songs. Drake made the piano part very much luxuriant yet luminous, and Hughes brought a sense of the deep emotional depths possible in apparently simple vocal gestures. The result was highly evocative, and some superb musical story-telling.

Debussy wrote Les Chansons de Bilitis in 1897 (five years before his opera), and it would not be until 1915 that he turned to the purely instrumental form of the sonata, and the plan for a sequence of six sonatas dominated his later years of composition. He would only complete three, and his Cello Sonata dates from 1918. By then, Debussy's art has changed considerably, he has aged, he is ill (dying of cancer) and troubled by World War I. The influence of earlier French composers can be felt in the music, yet in the first movement of the sonata alongside the hints of the French Baroque there is the odd 'blue note' too! Clein and Porat gave us an intense cello line supported by a strong piano, there was a flexibility to their performance with strong feeling for the quickly changing moods of the sonata. The middle movement serenade was in fact rather sinister, it was amazing how pregnant Clein managed to make the apparently straight-forward pizzicato notes! Again, the performance was quixotic and quicksilver, reflecting Debussy's varied moods. And this was completed in the delightfully changeable finale, fast and vivid with a real sense of joy.

Judith Weir's On the Palmy Beach, for voice, cello and piano (performed by Hughes, Clein and Drake) sets four different poems all about the sea, Wallace Stevens Fabliau of Florida, Kathleen Jamie's The Glass-hulled boat, Norman McCaig's Basking Shark and Emily Dickinson's I started early - Took my Dog. For the Wallace Stevens evocative description of a sea view, Weir's music reflected Stevens' descriptions of the ever-changing textures with some highly mobile musical ones, seductive and constantly changing, providing magical moments. For Kathleen Jamie's poem, which describes seeing sea creatures through the glass bottom of a boat, Weir made the cello into the jelly fish, and Clein slid and slithered beautifully, her striking glissandi complementing Hughes lovely dead-pan delivery of the descriptive texts (first spoken, then sung unaccompanied and only finally does the piano join). There were intriguing hints of a popular waltz here behind the music. There were popular music echoes too in the setting of Norman McCaig's description of an encounter with a shark, with Clein's vividly busy cello part contrasting with Hughes' more contained narration. Finally, Emily Dickinson's striking and dead-pan description of a visit to the seaside (in fact, she may never have seen the sea!). Weir's elliptical music matching Dickinson's verse, with a deceptively simple melody and a lovely wandering cello part.

The songs received a fine performance from Hughes, Clein and Drake, bringing out the quirky and elliptical nature of Weir's subtle music. However, we definitely needed the printed words as these did not perhaps come over as well as they could have done.

Finally we heard Brahms two Opus 90 songs. These were originally written for Joseph Joachim and his wife, for alto voice, viola and piano, here we heard them in an adaptation for soprano vocie, cello and piano. Though the performance was highly effective and evocative, I have to point out that transformation of the songs altered the relationship between voice and string instrument. In the original voice and viola are in a similar register, but in the new version soprano and cello are operating roughly an octave apart. This might not matter, particularly in a performance as fine as this one, but it needs considering.

For the opening song, the mellow chestnut of Clein's flowing cello part contrasted finely with the silvery elegance of Hughes vocal line, ably supported by Drake, to create something rather light-textured and touching. The lyrically flowing second song again had the mellowness of the cello and the clarity of Hughes vocal line. There was a lovely gentleness to this approach, underpinned by the richness of the cello.

We were given printed texts and ample programme notes describing each piece, but it would have been nice to have also been given some hints as to why this particular group of pieces. Too often in concerts, artists give us some imaginative programming yet there is little or no hint of the reasons behind the selection of items in the printed programme notes.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
  • Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume II , the Sixteen on CORO (★★) - Cd review
  • A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau, Prof. Helen Swift - concert review
  • Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End at Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • A work of scholarship and a fine performance: Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion (★★★) - CD review
  • A barren emotional landscape barely disguised by the production’s kitsch fairy-tale opulence: Turandot, Met Live in HD (★½) - opera review
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