Friday 4 July 2014

Entrancing - Lucy Crowe in recital at the Wigmore Hall

Lucy Crowe © Marco Borggreve
Lucy Crowe © Marco Borggreve
Schubert, Sibelius, Berg, Head, Britten, Tate, Walton; Lucy Crowe and Anna Tilbrook; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 3 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Fine silvery tones and intense communicativeness in an imaginative programme

Lucy Crowe's recital, with pianist Anna Tilbrook, at the Wigmore Hall on 3 July 2014 had a highly imaginative programme which started with a group of Schubert songs on the subject of water and night, and these themes ran through the subsequent works by Sibelius and Berg. A song cycle by the English composer Michael Head (1900-1976), was followed by a thematically linked group of folk-song arrangements by Britten and Phyllis Tate, and the evening finished with Walton's A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table. All sung in a highly communicative manner, and fine, silvery tone.

Anna Tilbrook
Anna Tilbrook
Crowe's opening group of Schubert songs started with Der Fluss, sung quietly with a very fine sense of legato and a lovely freedom to the voice. It was a performance of great delight and charm, though occasionally she seemed to sacrifice clarity of diction for purity of sound. In Auf dem Wasser zu singen both Crowe and Tilbrook brought an appealing swing to the song, with a sense of intense excitement. An der Mond started with a darkly resonant piano introduction, which complemented the fine thread of voice from Crow. Finally Nacht und Traume was sung with a lovely controlled sense of line, with great intensity but with a lovely ease of sound. All the songs were notable for the beautiful clarity of Crowe's voice, combined with performances of great charm and communicativeness.

Next, after a short introduction from Crowe, came Sibelius's Luonotar from 1913, in the composer's own version for voice and piano. The text comes from the Kalevala and tells of the creation of the world. Crowe sang it with thrilling vibrancy, projecting the Finnish text with admirable clarity and bringing a vivid sense of the words too. The high lying soprano line sounded gloriously free with Crowe exhibiting superb control, yet integrating the sound into the rest of the voice. Crowe was mesmerising, with vibrant silvery sound complementing a vivid narrative sense and supported by Tilbrook's very fine account of Sibelius's score.

They finished the first half with Alban Berg's Sieben fruhe Lieder, early songs that the composer wrote between 1905 and 1908 when he was still studying with Schoenberg. In them Berg shows, that despite his interest in advanced techniques, he was still fascinated by melody and by line in a way which would be important when he came to write his operas. Nacht and Schilflied were full of shimmering piano complementing Crowe's superbly controlled, silvery vocal contribution combining line and strength with admirable freedom. The result was some mesmerising textures. Die Nachtigall has perhaps the most memorable tune of the set, here quite enchantingly sung but with a vivid sense of narration too. Traumgekront felt more expressionist, with a lovely sensitivity from Tilbrook in the piano part. Crowe vividly characterised the narrative of Im Zimmer, and both performers brought a dark undertow to the lyrical expressionism of Liebesode. Finally Sommertage in which Crowe brought the cycle to a radiance finish. Throughout Crowe sang we communicative charm which complemented the fine-grained freedom of the vocal line.

Crowe and Tilbrook opened the second half with the song cycle Over the rim of the moon written in 1919/1920 by the British composer Michael Head, setting poems by Francis Ledwidge. The cycle opens with one of Head's best known songs, The ships of Arcady a lyrically attractive piece to which Crowe brought great personality and charm. Beloved was similarly melodic and nicely impulsive. Blackbird singing was full of vivacity and lovely clear silvery high notes. Nocturne sounded as if there were hints of the exotic in the music, but there was drama too and both Crowe and Tilbrook brought the song to a rapturous conclusion.

The group of folk songs all seemed arranged by theme so that they formed an interestingly coherent narrative, all about lost love. Crowe and Tilbrook started with a pair of Britten's arrangements, The ash grove and The Salley Gardens followed by The lark in the clear air arrangement by Phyllis Tate and then She moved through the fair which Crowe sang unaccompanied, and finally Britten's The Ash Grove. The songs were all performed with great technical skill, but in performances of knowing charm and great vivacity, bringing out their simple effectiveness. The unaccompanied performance of the traditional Irish song  She moved through the fair was mesmerising, and Crowe continued something of the traditional Irish inflection into She's like a swallow. This was a finely intelligent group of songs and showed that 20th century folk-song arrangements can work as a main item in a song recital, and not just as a final group of works.

The final work in Crowe and Tilbrook's programme was Walton's 1962 song cycle A song for the Lord Mayor's Table which was written for the City of London Festival and premiered by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore. I am not sure that I have heard the cycle live since the 1980's (performed I think by Ameral Gunson at the Purcell Room). So it was doubly a pleasure to encounter it in a performance as vivid as that of Crowe and Tilbrook.

The Lord Mayor's Table (setting Thomas Jordan) made a bravura start to the work, with Crowe giving full weight to both words and music as well as showing admirable control and clarity in the more ornamental sections of the vocal line. Glide Gently (setting Wordsworth) had a sinuously chromatic melody in a performance which was hypnotic. In Wapping Old Stairs (setting an anonymous text) Crowe brought out the jaunty cabaret-style of Walton's music with just the right combination of lightness and edge to the tone, and a vivid feeling of story telling. Holy Thursday (setting William Blake)i, was again vividly told, but this time with some lovely lyrical moments too. The Contrast (setting Charles Morris) brought back the cabaret feel, but in a rather more complex song with Crowe giving us some brilliant technical control at the tend. Finally, an infectiously vivid performance of Rhyme (the anonymous full version of Oranges and Lemons).

Throughout Crowe was well supported by Anna Tilbrook bringing poise, sympathy and not a little technical wizardry to the piano accompaniments.

This was a wonderfully entrancing recital. Highly communicative throughout, Crowe showed a lovely combination of technical skill and vivid characterisation. There were some superbly magical musical moments, and some glorious sounds in the higher lying music sung with admirable freedom, but always in the service of the music.  Have written my main review, I have to add one extra comment. Crowe was visibly pregnant but this seemed to hardly reflect in her performance at all, reflecting again her fine technique.

We were treated to a single encore, a nicely free account of Gershwin's Summertime.

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