Sunday 20 July 2014

Women on the edge - Rosalind Plowright in recital

Rosalind Plowright
Handel, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Falla, Weill, Britten, Stanford; Rosalind Plowright, Philip Mountford; Buxton Festival at the Pavilion Arts Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

The distinguished mezzo-soprano's recital based on her recent solo disc.

A subtitle for Rosalind Plowright's recital at Buxton Festival on 19 July might have been 'Women on the Edge' or even borrowing Almodovar's 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'. Plowright's recital with pianist Philip Mountford at the Pavilion Arts Centre was based around her recently released CD, though with some judicious alterations so that we had a programme which started with Handel and worked its way through Brahms, Tchaikovsky, De Falla, Kurt Weill, Britten and Stanford to Frank Bridge. But whatever the composer, you sensed Plowright mining the darker edge of the songs.

Always an intensely dramatic performer, each song became a scene or scena with presentation as vividly dramatic as her singing. A voice as thrilling as Plowright's was never going to be an easy ride in recital. As an opera singer she specialises in dramatic parts like Herodias in Salome, and has been a notable Medea, and there were moments in the recital when you felt these characters wander into the limelight.

Things started in highly dramatic vein with Dejanira's Whither Shall I Fly from Handel's Hercules, a mad scene in all but name, Plowright gave us an intense few minutes during which you really thought she was seeing things. And her command of the baroque idiom with its flurries of passagework wasn't half bad either.

Next came a pair of Brahms songs, Unbewegte laue Luft, and Von ewiger Liebe. Here, though both were calmer and imbued with lyric melancholy, Plowright still gave a sense of the currents running underneath and used her rich voice to full effect.

A group of four Tchaikovsky songs mined a vein of serious melancholy, with Plowright matching the dark tones of her voice to Tchaikovsky's settings of the Russian language. The Bride's Lament was full of evocative gloom, whilst Not a word, my Friend was lighter but still dark toned. Why? was an impulsive and rather intense drama, and only Can it be day gave us a more positive sense.

Plowright concluded the first half with Manuel De Falla's 7 Canciones poulaires Espanolas. Here there musical material is not quite as dark, but Falla's vivid evocations of Spanish popular culture are all rooted in the essential disappointment that women feel in men. After the exotic strains for El Pano Moruno, in Seguidilla Murciana you very distinctly got the impression that you would not like to get on the wrong side of the character singing. Asturiana was lyrical, but highly evocative, whilst Jota Plowright brought immense charm and a certain slyness. Nana was full of plangent lines, whilst Cancion returned us to the highly flirtatious. Finally Jota resembled nothing so much as a vivid incantation.

After the interval (which provided a welcome element of relief from the sauna like atmosphere in the concert hall), Plowright and Mountford returned to the subject of wronged women, this time from the pen of Kurt Weill. Plowright sang three songs, Der Abscheisbrief, Je ne t'aime pas and Surabaya Johnny. Only the last one is well known, but all require a certain balance between text and music, singing the words much more on the edge. The songs can be destroyed by too operatic a performance. Here Plowright was thrillingly vivid, judging them just right and putting the words over well, whether in German or French, and spitting out the spoken passages in a manner worthy of Lenya. All of the songs responded well to Plowright's brand of extreme emotionalism.

Time constraints (and a certain nervousness about her voice after a bout of illness) led to the dropping of a couple of items. But we still had a beautifully still and simple account of Britten's folksong arrangement, O Waly, Waly showing that Plowright has a sense of simplicity too. Her performance of Charles Villiers Stanford's La belle Dame sans merci brought out the songs strong narrative sense, with Plowright seeming a riveting story teller. An approach which sweeps you away, and hides the musical weaknesses of Stanford's song in quite a brilliant manner.

Finally Frank Bridge's Love went a'riding. A rather brilliant setting of a barmy poem, but a song beloved of ladies with large voices the world over. Here a brilliant and vivid conclusion to an intense and emotional recital.

There were a couple of occasions when it was clear that the remnants if illness were making Plowright manage her voice more than she wished, but she is a complete professional and as she said in her introduction, has a long career behind her with plenty of experience. So what we got was still a 110 watt performance, never less than vivid drama and some bloody good singing as well.

Throughout, Plowright was supported by pianist Philip Mountford who provided a sympathetic and calm background for all these emotional ladies, but managing to match her in intensity when needed.

This was an intense but highly enjoyable 90 minutes, and the adjectives vivid, thrilling and dramatic could easily be overused in my review. Rosalind and Philip's disc is highly enjoyable, but hearing them live is a far more visceral experience.
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