Thursday 14 February 2013

CD Review - Tell me the truth about love

How to structure a recital? It could almost be a song couldn't it? But the song recital (and by extension the song recital CD) gives plenty of scope for artists to experiment. Some are content with sticking to the standard format, a tried and tested formula which doesn't fail, but which does not always leave room for much imagination. Ever since Graham Johnson started the Songmaker's Almanac (in 1976), recital possibilities have extended. This new disc from soprano Amanda Roocroft and pianist Joseph Middleton is firmly in Songmaker's Almanac territory. It takes a love affair through all its stages utilising a wide variety of songs in a selection of languages, but always with the intention of telling a story.

The CD is based on a recital programme that Roocroft and Middleton performed. But the CD has had the concept taken even further, the packaging and booklet being styled like a small photograph album containing the singer's memories of the affair. It contains extensive notes, Middleton weaves a notional plot around the stories as well as providing background to the songs. Obviously the listener does not necessarily have to follow this, after all the concept is perhaps a little arch. But it clearly helps Roocroft, a very dramatic singing actress, to articulate her responses to the songs.

The disc opens with Britten and Auden's Tell me the truth about love. I have to confess that I approached the disc rather nervously and was very relieved when I heard this track. Roocroft has a rich, warm voice with a noticeable vibrato. The sort of voice which, if not well recorded, can seem to have the vibrato captured without any of the voice's core.

I can report that Alexander van Ingen's recording has caught her voice well. As recorded her, it has a fine firm core with a warm vibrato. In Tell me the truth about love she shows that she can thin the voice down, singing the words in an admirably pointed fashion and achieving a nice balance between pure cabaret and full song.

The first group of songs present the couple's first meeting. They start with a nicely intimate and confiding account of Seid ich ihn gesehen (Since first seeing him) from Schumann's Frauen-liebe und -leben. Words are to the fore here, as they should be. But when she pushes the voice there are hints of instability.  They follow this with Lili Boulanger's Vouz m'avez regarde avec toute votre ame (You gazed at me with all your soul), from her 1914 song cycle Clairieres dans le ciel, setting the symbolist poet Francis Jannes. Shimmering textures in the piano offset the simple vocal setting, though Roocroft's performance hints at the ecstatic rapture to come. Chausson's Le Charme is  a simple elegant contrast, a little gem. Both Roocroft and Middleton bring off the quiet ending perfectly. Wolf's O war dein Haus (If only your house) has a delicate piano part, fabulously realised by Middleton, which suggests the transparent glass that she wishes his house be made of, so she could always see him. Roocroft is nicely restrained here, in the vocal line. Finally in this group is Quilter's Love's Philosophy setting Shelley. This sees Roocroft giving due weight to the song's  line and flow, but her voice yields to pressure at the top at times and her diction is perhaps not ideal. This is one of a number of songs on the disc where the singer seems to put line above words.

The next group of songs depicts the couple's encounter on a Saturday afternoon. We start with Loewe's Ich kann's nicht fassen (I cannot grasp it) from his 1836 setting of Frauen-liebe und -leben. Loewe was highly regarded in the 19th century, but has lost out a bit in our own. This is a slow, delicate song and Roocroft's performance is nicely poised, giving hints that are almost pert. In Brahms's Wir Wandelten (We were walking) the couple wander together, the piano beautifully suggestive in its crystalline clarity. Roocroft's contribution is finely and intelligently done, though once again she prizes line above words.  John Ireland's The Trellis sets Aldous Huxley, her both pianist and singer convey the quiet but intensely heady atmosphere of the song. Finally we have Poldowski's En Sourdine (Muted). Poldowski was the nom-de-plume of Irena Regina Wieniawska (daughter of the virtuoso violinist Wieniawski) and she wrote this setting of Verlaine between 1915 and 1920. A simple but powerful song, it gives primacy to Verlaine's poetry, at times approaching declamation but also reaching ecstasy.

Having had an afternoon encounter, we now move on to the couple's first evening together in the next group of songs. Richard Strauss's Nachtgang (Night walk) has the lovers walking arm in arm, and ends with a kiss. At times the vocal line seems to approach early Berg, something which Roocroft seems to relish. Thomas Dunhill's setting of W.B. Yeats' The Cloths of Heaven is hymn-like but not four-square. Both Roocroft and Middleton give the song a nicely poetic flexibility. A contemporary of Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, Dunhill is now known for just one or two small scale pieces. 

Mompou's Damunt de tu nomes les flors (Above you naught but flowers) evokes true sensuality in its direct uncluttered line. Roocroft brings real depth to this song, hinting at memories of Caballe. And we conclude in ecstasy, with Rachmaninov's Midsummer nights, Middleton revelling the outrageously elaborate piano part. Roocroft is wonderfully intense here, and if the top of the voice is a bit wayward, then no wonder with all that passion thrashing around.

And so to the morning after. First of all, Frank Bridge's Adoration which builds to an incredible climax but I would have liked to be able to hear more of Keats' words. Grieg's Jeg elsker Dig (I love you) is another little gem, setting Hans Christian Anderson, and is taken from Grieg's Melodies of the Heard. Roocroft gives the little song beautiful shape and line.  Hugo Wolf's Geh' Geliebster, geh' jetzt is a rather bigger sing; from simple beginnings the drama develops quite a head of steam. And drama this is, Roocroft brings out all the richness of the words here. Another lovely sparkling piano part in Marx's Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht (And yesterday he brought me roses). Here again, Roocroft develops the vocal line into ecstatic rapture; you just know that this girl is setting herself up for a fall.

And that comes in the last group, deception and betrayal. Brahms's Am Sontag Morgen (On Sunday morning), is a wonderful little song. Heyse's poem describes how the woman has seen her lover going off for an assignation. Roocroft gives Brahms's melody primacy here, with words not to the fore and the voice a little under pressure perhaps. A second Brahms song, Du sprichst das ich nicht tauschte (You say that I was mistaken) is quietly intense, full of dark heartbreak. More bleakness in Schubert's Du liebste mich nicht (You do not love me), the message becoming very clear.

But Debussy's La Chevelure (The Tresses) attempts to recapture what once was. Debussy's setting of Pierre Louys' poem is the 2nd of the composer's Chansons de Bilitis. Roocroft and Middleton's performance is glorious, the rapture touched by darkness underneath. Faure's Fleur jetee (Discarded flower) is altogether a surprise. A brilliant, Erlkonig like, piano part superbly rendered by Middleton, and the highly dramatic song gives Roocroft full rein. In Schoenberg's Warnung from 1899, the girl is now patently demented. Roocroft sings the sing in full voice, but brings out the edgy, expressionistic quality. Though perhaps she sounds just a little too sensible, you can't quite believe she poisoned her dog, sending her lover carnations stained with blood!

Samuel Barber's 1935 setting of James Joyce, Rain has fallen, has a fabulous, impressionistic piano part which is nicely realised by Middleton.The vocal line is quite plain, perhaps almost expressionist, relying on the contrast with the elaborate piano. A lovely song, finely realised. By contrast, the piano in Aaron Copland's Heart, we will forget him is unassuming. It is a simple, rather neoclassical song, receiving a touching and well judged performance from Roocroft and Middleton.

Kurt Weill's Je ne t'aime pas brings a melancholic and perhaps slightly ironic tinge to the proceedings. Roocroft shows nice balance between sung line and cabaret; starting on just a thread of voice and developing in intensity. Finally Reynaldo Hahn's Infidelite, a touching performance with Roocroft breathing live into the merest thread of melody. As a postlude there is a delightful account of Britten's arrangement of Early one morning.

The CD comes in a booklet, complete with texts and translations and Middleton's own notes on the songs.

This is an intelligent and engrossing recital. You don't necessarily have to buy into the narrative that the performers have created, you could just treat is as themed groups of songs. But Roocroft's performances are always dramatically involving, and she gives each song its own distinctive style. In this she is able supported by Middleton who is dazzling in some of the pieces. The recital casts its net very wide, not every song comes off perfectly, but the whole adds up to a great recital from one of the warmest, vibrant and most human of sopranos.

Tell me the Truth about Love

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Tell me the truth about love
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) - Seit ich ihn gesehen
Lili Boulanger (1893 - 1918) - Vous m'avez regarde avvec toute votre ame
Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - O war'dein Haus
Ernest Chausson (1855 - 1899) - Le charme
Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953) - Love's Philosophy
Karl Loewe (1796 - 1869) - Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Wir wandelten
John Ireland (1879 - 1962) - The trellis
Poldowski (1879 - 1932) - En sourdine
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) - Nachtgang
Thomas Dunhill (1877 - 1946) - The cloths of heaven
Federico Mompou (1893 - 1987) - Damunt de tu nomes les flors
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943) - Midsummer Nights
Frank Bridge (1879 - 1941) - Adoration
Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907) - Jeg elsker Dig
Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - Geh', Geliebter, geh' jetzt!
Joseph Marx (1882 - 1964) - Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)  - Am Sonntag Morgen
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Du sprichst, dass ich mich tauschte
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) - Du liebst mich nicht
Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)- La chevelure
Gabriel Faure (1845 - 1924) - Fleur jetee
Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) - Warnung
Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981) - Rain has fallen
Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990) - Heart, we will forget him
Kurt Weill (1900 - 1950)- Je ne t'aime pas
Reynaldo Hayn (1875 - 1947) - Infidelite
arr. Benjamin Britten - Early One Morning
Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (tenor)
Recorded 19-20 August 2011 at the Music Room, Champs hill, West Sussex

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