Thursday 14 March 2013

Sarah Walker's 70th birthday

Sarah Walker
On Wednesday 13 March 2013, two days after mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker's 70th birthday, the Wigmore Hall hosted her 70th birthday concert. Organised by pianist Graham Johnson, with whom Sarah Walker has a long working friendship, the concert was entitled Let us Garlands Bring, based on Shakepeare settings. Joining the distinguished mezzo-soprano and Johnson on the platform were actress Eleanor Bron, soprano Laura Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and baritone Stephan Loges.

Mitchell and Whately are currently playing the two sisters in English Touring Opera's production of  Cosi fan Tutte (see my review on this blog) which brought back memories of one of Graham Johnson's Songmaker's Almanac concerts at the Wigmore Hall, 'If Fiordiligi and Dorabella were opera singers'. In fact the programme very much reminded me of a Songmaker's Almanac one, with Johnson's familiar skill at pairing known and unknown songs.

Arranged in a prologue, five thematic acts and an epilogue, the songs were punctuated by readings from Eleanor Bron and from the cast, both of Shakespeare and of other writers opinions (both good and bad), from George IiI to George S. Kaufman, from Ben Jonson and Byron, from Heine to Berlioz.

We opened of course, with John Dankworth's The Compleat Works sung by Sarah Walker. Act one then moved to Germany, for a selection of familiar songs. Laura Mitchell in Schubert's Standchen, was followed by Stephan Loges in the composer's Trinklied and Wolf's delightful Lied des transferierten Zettel, then Kitty Whately in Schubert's An Sylvia.

Act two was set in Hamlet's Denmark. Preceded by Johnson reading Berlioz's desciption of his discovery of Shakespeare, was a highly imaginative and effective pairing; Brahms's unaccompanied Ophelia Lieder sung by Sarah Walker in English, interleaved with Mitchell's brilliant rendition of Richard Strauss's Drei Lieder der Ophelia. Eleanor Bron's moving reading of Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death was followed by an extra item. In their first concert together, Sarah Walker and Graham Johnson performed Berlioz's Mort d'Ophelie and so for this concert, at his request, they repeated it. Finally Loges sang Shostakovich's Hamlet's dialogue with his conscience, no. 3 of his Six Poemts of Marina Tsvetaeva.

We moved to Scotland for act three. Whately sang Joseph Horovitz's Lady Macbeth, a scena. A slightly daunting task as the work is much associated with Sarah Walker who has recorded it with Graham Johnson, and Joseph Horovitz (born 1926) was in the audience. But Whately acquitted herself brilliantly and I do hope that the piece stays in her repertoire. Sarah Walker then concluded the first half with Dankworth's Dunsinane Blues.

For act four we had a garland of fancies. Mitchell sang Thomas Arne's delightful Tell me where is fancy bred, with violin solo played by Roberto Gonzalez. Loges was finely in sympathy with three songs from Gerald Finzi's Let us garlands bring (Who is Sylvia?, Fear no more the heat of the sun, O mistress mine). Sarah Walker's account of Poulenc's Fancy was followed by Whately singing Britten's Fancie setting the same text, with Mitchell and Sarah Walker joining in the final 'Ding, Dong Bell'.

Act five was set in England, with an excursion to Russia. Mitchell sang Parry's O Mistress Mine (a lovely discovery), then Mitchell and Whately joined for RVW's moving Dirge for Fidele. Loges sang Shostakovich's setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet 66 in Russian translation.  Whately returned wtih Edmund Rubbra's lovely Take, o take those lips away, followed by Sarah Walker singing Mervyn Horder's delightfully catchy Under the greenwood tree. Finally Whately sang Geoffrey Bush's It was a lover and his lass..

For the Epilogue, we first had Thomas Arne's Where the bee sucks sung by Whately, then Stephan Loges sang Michael Tippett's setting of the same words. Finally we got Hugo Wolf's Elfenlied. This was a totally delightfully discovery. For it, Mitchell was joined by violinists Roberto Gonzalez and Freya Franzen, plus a female chorus from the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music singing from the balcony.

As an encore, Sarah Walker sang Schubert's Standchen setting (not Shakespeare) for mezzo-soprano and chorus. Afterwards, Sarah Walker made a speech and decried her own performance. With the female chorus now on stage, Sarah Walker brought on one of them, Bethan Langford, to sing the solo in a repeat of the Schubert.

This was a beautifully thought out and quite delightful evening, full of some superb singing, and lovely discoveries. Johnson was his usual superb self at the piano. There was also the feeling that not only were we celebrating Sarah Walker's birthday, but the continuity to the younger generation. Sarah Walker demonstrated that her talent and charm have not diminished, and she was complemented by the fine performances from Mitchell, Whately and Loges.
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