Friday 30 November 2012

Last night of the London Song Festival

Jonathan McGovern - credit Benjamin Ealovega
Jonathan McGovern
credit Benjamin Ealovega
Admittedly there was no flag waving or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ but nevertheless this was an evening the London Song Festival could be proud of. Now in its 6th year, the London Song Festival, founded by Nigel Foster aims to ‘halt the decline of the song recital’. A mixture of showcase concerts and masterclasses run throughout October and November. The showcase concerts feature young professional singers and the workshops are aimed at GCSE and A level students as well as singers from Music College.

Ruby Hughes - credit Camilo Echeverri
Ruby Hughes
credit Camilo Echeverri
Last night’s concert (28 November) was billed as being built around the theme of ‘Songs of Wandering and of the Night’, but both ‘wandering’ and ‘night’ were very inventively interpreted. The singers were Ruby Hughes and Jonathan McGovern. Ruby studied at Chetham’s, Guildhall and Munich and is currently a New Generation Artist at BBC Radio 3. Jonathon studied at King’s College London, Royal Academy of Music and Royal Academy Opera, and is a Britten-Pears Young artist and an Associate artist with Classical Opera. Both have shining credentials, having won prizes galore before settling into recital and opera, and both have sung with the ENO and the BBC Philharmonic. The accompanist was Nigel Foster himself.

But the Festival is not just about music – it aims to give the poet ‘equal prominence to the composer’ – and in this tonight’s performance excelled. The libretto were clearly available (with translation) in the programme. However this was thankfully unnecessary because both soloists had very clear diction and never once sacrificed pronunciation for the sake of hitting a note. Also because they were both dramatic singers, even without the translations the sentiment and emotion were perfectly clear.

That said, the programme notes were delightful, with little asides describing the circumstances under which the songs where written, who loved and lost whom, and squabbles between composer and poet.
The evening entertainment began with Schubert (1797-1828) and Four Songs. Der Wanderer An Den Mond sung by Ruby was delightful and possibly the only song about travel. With An Den Mond, we had the start of darker themes. Sung by Jonathan it was delicately controlled and underpowered at the start moving into dramatic tension perfectly controlled by singer and accompanist together. Wandrers Nachtlied continued the mournful themes but Auf Der Bruck returned to a sprightlier tune, although turning to loss at the end.

Ruby sang the next set – Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire by Debussy (1862-1918). The programme notes explain that because of the volume these poems are taken from Baudelaire was ‘prosecuted for offending public decency’. Debussy wrote these romantic songs a mere twenty years after Baudelaire’s death and when he was most influenced by Wagner. It may be compositional preference creeping in, but I felt that these songs suited Ruby’s voice better than the Schubert - there was more scope for her to play with the words and melody.

The sexual tension of Baudelaire became briefly more bawdy with Ireland’s (1879-1962) Songs of a Wayfarer sung by Jonathan. There were some lovely compositional touches, the bird trill for ‘linnet’ in Memory for example. But the mood became more mournful again with English May, and the rainy accompaniment and poignant silences in I Was Not Sorrowful. These were all very well done and impassioned. However the final piece in the set did not seem to fit. It was clunky and hymn-like. A quick look in the programme notes soon explained why – Ireland had been forced to write it by his publisher, and the words were by James Vila Blake, a pastor of the American Unitarian Church of Quincy.

The second half began with more Schubert. Die Junge Nonne was perfectly performed by Ruby with the right amount of passion and contrition all underscored by the storm and bells on the piano and Erlkönig sung by Jonathan dramatically rising above the storm.

I was not sure how to place the Three Songs to Words by Trevor Blakemore composed by William Alwyn (1905-1985). This was presumably the modern, lesser known composer, twist to the evening, but these songs were written in 1940. However while Nocturne had pretty English Art Song accompaniment it had none of the atmosphere, and Harvest did not quite work, with the melody sounding more like a TV theme tune.

The evening ended on safer ground with Mahler (1861-1911) and Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) – words also by Mahler. But it was also a return to sadness, sorrowful sleeping, passionate romantic rejection, and death. Although again beautifully performed. Die Zwei Blauen Augen was a dejected choice to end on. It begins in a funereal way but even though it picks up a little in the last verse, and clears emotionally with ‘All was well again’, this seemed not to be enough to lift the mood of the audience.

St Pauls, Covent Garden, also known as the Actor’s Church, was a perfect venue for the festival, small enough to be filled but not so small that the singers overpowered the space. Christmas was already in attendance with the crib in one corner and the lights from Covent Garden shining through the stained glass window. The festival ethos of ‘accessibility’ also shone through - the evening had the friendliness of an amateur concert but with the music of a professional event.

I know it was the end of this year’s ‘journey’ but I was left wishing that there had been more of a celebration ending. Maybe not the flag waving, but a cheery encore, rather than misery and broken hearts. So broken hearted we have to wait for next year – maybe waving a little flag inside for the song.
review by Hilary Glover

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