Sunday 1 December 2013

Jacques Imbrailo at the Wigmore Hall

Jacques Imbrailo (credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Jacques Imbrailo (credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke)
The recital by baritone Jacques Imbrailo and pianist Alisdair Hogarth at the Wigmore Hall on 30 November 2013 focussed very firmly on English composers. The pair opened with RVW's Songs of Travel and closed with George Butterworth's Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, both quintessentially English pieces. In the middle of the recital Imbrailo and Hogarth performed Herbstlieder, the Rilke settings by the pianist and composer Stephen Hough which were written for Imbrailo. The programme was completed with Liszt's Tre sonnetti di Petrarca (Three Sonnets of Petrarch).

For someone born Afrikaans speaking in South Africa, it might seem remarkable to devote so much of a recital to English song. But bi-lingual singers often have an interesting feel for English music. Imbrailo has devoted much of this year to Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd and clearly has a strong affinity with English song. His performance of RVW's Robert Louis Stephenson settings was notable for the strength and poetry of the words.

RVW wrote Songs of Travel in 1901-1904, they are some of the earliest of his works regularly in the repertoire. Having initially written Whither must I wander? RVW deliberately returned to Stevenson in order to create a song-cycle in the Austro-German lieder tradition.

Imbrailo sang with a fine firm line, and gave The Vagabond a lovely melancholy cast. He and Hogarth took the song at quite a moving pace, with Imbrailo keeping the performance low key but intense except at the climax 'Not to winter even!'. Hogarth's piano was beautifully to the fore in Let beauty awake complementing the beauty of tone which Imbrailo brought to the song, only one or two diphthongs giving his native accent away. Imbrailo made the long lines of The roadside fire delightfully confiding. His wasn't a highly demonstrative performance, but it was a finely judged one, making you concentrate and pay attention to his every nuance. That said, at the climaxes he was able to open up his voice brilliantly. And in every song he showed a great feel for the poetry.

Youth and love was beautifully inward and I noted the impressive way his voice kept its evenness all the way to the very top. The second verse was more rhapsodic, with a fine contribution from Hogarth. At the climaxes, Imbrailo's voice opened up powerfully, but preserved its focus and beauty. In Dreams was deeply felt and intense. In The infinite shining heavens Imbrailo fined his town down to create some real magic. He made Whither must I wander? quite entrancing and involving, belying the wordy nature of the poem. Bright is the ring of words was resounding in both voice and piano. The final song, I have trod the upward and the downward slope refers back to the opening song (in fact it was only added to the cycle in 1960). Imbrailo and Hogarth brought the cycle to a touching close. Songs of Travel is quite a long cycle, nine poems in all, and throughout Imbrailo combined lovely vocal texture with a profound feeling for the words.

Stephen Hough's Herbstlieder were written in 2010 and premiered by Jacques Imbrailo and Alisdair Hogarth at the Oxford Lieder Festival. Hough sets five Rilke poems in the original German. The spirit of early Berg hands quite strongly over the songs and as would be expected from a pianist/composer like Hough, the piano parts play an important role, with piano and voice acting as equals. Hough's writing for voice is interestingly expressionist.

Herbsttag (Autumn Day) displayed a combination of lyric vocal line and complex piano part with some finely passionate moments. Klage (Lament) was meditative with the vocal line recitative like at first, but growing in power and taking Imbrailo to the very limit of his upper range, his use of head voice at the end ("Standing in the heavens") was clearly taxing but finely done. Tranenkrgulein (The little jar of tears) was lively but not upbeat with an interestingly complex interaction between voice and piano. Besturz mich Musik (Shock me, music) was passionate recitative, which Imbrailo made very expressive and was complemented with an amazing piano part. The concluding song, Herbst (Autumn) was profoundly bleak with only a hint of the growth of spring at the very end.

I would like to be more enthusiastic about Hough's Herbstlieder, and clearly Imbrailo and Hogarth have strong regard for them. But the spirit of Berg hangs a bit too heavy, and whilst Hough achieves some lovely textures he does not achieve the sort of lyricism needed in the vocal line. I found much of it too recitative like, albeit expressively performed by Imbrailo and Hogarth.

After the interval Imbrailo and Hogarth performed Liszt's Three Sonnets by Petrarch. Liszt wrote them for tenor voice whilst in Italy in 1838/39. He produced a simpler, less virtuosic version for baritone or mezzo-soprano whilst working in Weimar. Imbrailo sang the original virtuosic tenor version transposed into the keys of the later baritone version.

Pace non trovo (I find not peace) opens with a highly recitative-like opening, revealing the operatic inspiration to these songs, they are operatic arias in all but name. And Hogarth complemented Imbrailo's long, well-shaped vibrant vocal line with brilliantly passionate piano. Imbrailo showed a good feel for the Italianate cantilena and it worked surprisingly well in the baritone register, particularly as Imbrailo combined beauty of tone with flexibility. The result was mesmerising. Benedetto sia 'l giorno (Blessed by the day) was taken at quite a lively speed. Imbrailo's operatic experience told here and there was something very involving about the performance, though it was certainly not overtly operatic. Both Imbrailo and Hogarth combined accuracy and fine passagework with intense passion. In I vidi in terra anglici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) Imbrailo brought lovely shape and fine detail to the elaborate voice line. His flexibility of line was matched by Hogarth's piano. The performance was relatively low key, but with Imbrailo's lovely sense of line, the result was still very vibrant.

George Butterworth's Six songs from A Shropshire Lad date from 1911 and are rather more folk-like than RVW's setting of the poet. In Loveliest of trees Imbrailo combined vocal beauty with a great feel for the words, and a strong sense of Housman's poetry. This is very much a young man's song and it was lovely to hear it sung by a young singer. When I was one and twenty combined delight and melancholy, with a natural folk-like feel. Look not in my eyes was sung with superbly controlled tone and an expressive feel for the poetry. Think no more, lad was rollicking and folk-like. The lads in their hundreds is for me one of the most moving settings in the cycle, and Imbrailo and Hogarth did not disappoint in this wonderful performance. Finally Is my team ploughing, with Butterworth setting verses which RVW missed out in his setting. Imbrailo brought nice characterisation to the two voices, with a very eerie feel to the ghost and bluff uneasiness to the man. Quite masterly.

We were treated to two encores. First an Afrikaans folk-song Massari which dates back to the Boer Wars and with a tune which was remarkably similar to the Foggy foggy dew. This was followed by Britten's The Water is Wide.

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