Wednesday 10 September 2014

Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano at the Wigmore Hall

Joyce DiDonato and Sir Antonio Pappano at the Wigmore Hall - photo credit Simon Jay Price
Joyce DiDonato and Sir Antonio Pappano at the Wigmore Hall -
photo credit Simon Jay Price
Haydn, Rossini, Santoliquido, Kern, Rogers, Moross, Bolcom; Joyce DiDonato, Antonion, Pappano; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 6 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Highways and byways of both Italian and American song in Joyce DiDonato's recital opening the Wigmore Hall's season

Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano gave a pair of recitals at the Wigmore Hall to open the 2014/15 season and we caught the second of them on Monday 8 September 2014. The first half concentrated on works with Italian words, but with a highly varied selection which started with Haydn's Arianna a Naxos, moved via Rossini songs to I canti della sera by Francesco Santoliquido before finishing with Ernesto de Curtis's Non ti scordar di me. For the second half we moved to America with songs by Stephen Foster, Jerome Kern, Havelock Nelson, Celius Dougherty, Jerome Moross, William Bolcom, Villa-Lobos, Richard Rogers and Robert Lowry.

Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano opened with Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos. a large scale piece for voice and piano which describes Ariadne's reactions when she wakes up on Naxos and finds Theseus gone. The text is anonymous and we don't know for what occasion Haydn wrote it, but it was popular during his lifetime. It consists of the standard sequence of recitatives and arias, in which Ariadne is at first puzzled by Theseus's absence and then sees his ship leaving, giving rise to a wish to die. The first aria is slow and suitably pathetic, whilst final aria starts slowly but Haydn appends a presto in which Ariadne gives serious vent.

Joyce DiDonato at the Wigmore Hall - photo credit Simon Jay Price
Joyce DiDonato at the Wigmore Hall
photo credit Simon Jay Price
DiDonato brought out the fine, pathetic nature of the piece and, singing from memory, made it almost an operatic scena so intense was her characterisation. Even the recitatives were intensely concentrated, with beautifully shaped phrases. This was a performance which was very immediate and vibrant, but without the degree of self-indulgence that can creep in. The final aria was bleak but beautiful, with the concluding presto simply thrilling. I have to confess that I would have preferred the brighter, more transparent sound of the forte piano in the piece but Pappano very sensitively rendered Haydn's imaginative piano part.

Rossini's song Belta crudele (Cruel Beauty) dates from 1821, the peak of his career as an operatic composer. This piece is very much about the voice, after an interesting piano introduction the accompaniment is simple arpeggiated figures over which DiDonato spun endless lines of liquid melody. Her integration of ornaments into the line made the whole seem beautifully natural and vibrant, yet delicate. Rossini's La Danza dates from his retirement, and is more well known. DiDonate and Pappano took the piece at quite a fast speed, with DiDonato dazzling with the way she not only delivered the text at speed but made it live.

Frencesco Santoliquido (1883 - 1971) was a 20th century Italian composer who writing for the lyric voice was restricted to songs, he never wrote operas. His I canti della sera (Songs of the Evening) are early works, written in 1908 just after his training in Rome and setting his own words. There are four songs, all highly romantic and dealing with the perils and pains of love; initially it appears to be someone describing but as the cycle progresses it becomes apparent that it is all in the past. A mood of romantic melancholy prevails and Santoliquido's style is highly romantic and melodic in a Puccini-esque way, perhaps post-Puccini. Though melodic, Santoliquido is not as compact as Puccini and the songs' melodies have a tendency to wander. They were given poised and highly polished performances from DiDonato and Pappano, the two of them creating a highly evocative sense of the melancholy gloom of the evening. But there was also a feeling that the songs were not quite as good as the care lavished on them, but they were enormously enjoyable nonetheless.

The first half finished with a more well known lighter number, Non ti scordar di me by Ernesto De Curtis (1875 - 1937), a waltz song written in 1935 for Gigli and here made delightful, yet heart on sleeve conclusion.

Joyce DiDonato performing Celius Dougherty's Love at the Wigmore Hall - photo credit Simon Jay Price
Joyce DiDonato performing Celius Dougherty's Love
photo credit Simon Jay Price
For the second half of the concert we moved to America, with a programme of American song much, but not all, from Broadway. For these songs DiDonato fined her voice down and all were sung with a poised elegance, charm and not a little sexiness, but without the bump-and-grind which others can bring to them. All concert singers must find their way round the problem of singing popular songs on the concert platform, and DiDonato certainly made them her own in a beautiful and affecting manner. Whilst the opening and closing songs had credited arrangers, all the rest were uncredited so I am unclear at quite how much Antonio Pappano was improvising his piano accompaniments. Whatever the case, the results were highly infectious.

DiDonato and Pappano opened with Stephen Foster's Beatiful Dreamer arranged by David Krane. Krane had produced a complex and lusciously lyrical piano accompaniment over to the top of which DiDonato sang the melody in perfect manner. The result was very beautiful, but seemed to leave Foster's original parlour ballad a long way behind. This was followed by two Jerome Kern songs, The Siren's Song from Leave it to Jane (dating from 1917) and Go little boat from Oh, My Dear! (dating from 1918). Both had words by P.G. Wodehouse. And both were a seductive delight, with DiDonato giving subtle but simple performances which brought out the nuances of Kern's fine writing. The second song in particular was mesmerising and seemed a long way from Broadway. Finally in this group, an arrangement of a traditional Irish song Lovely Jimmy made by Havelock Nelson; thankfully a blessedly simple arrangement which allowed the song to speak.

The next group started with a non-Broadway song by a composer new to me, Celius Dougherty (1902 - 1986). Love in the dictionary was a setting of the Dictionary definition of love. In many ways quite a light song, but a total delight particularly in a performance as memorable as DiDonato's. But though the songs was indeed fun, there was quite a subtle message to it and it was undoubtedly beautiful. There followed a further Jerome Kern song, Life on the Wicked Stage from Show Boat. This was a lovely contrast to the Dougherty, and given an wonderfully characterful performance. Whilst Jerome Moross's Lazy afternoon fronm The Golden Apple (1955) was a slow and sexy, luxuriant bluesy number which DiDonato sang in a hushed bleached tone which made it very evocative. William Bolcom's Amor,which comes from his Twelve Cabaret songs, combined a Latin American accompaniment with rather jazzy vocals in a charmingly period way. The final song in this group was Villa Lobos's Food for Thought from Magdalena (1948) which was a terrific song, full of dramatic Latin American rhythms. But, for the only time in the concert, I failed to catch a single word.

Joyce DiDonato and Sir Antonio Pappano at the Wigmore Hall - photo credit Simon Jay Price
Joyce DiDonato and Sir Antonio Pappano at the Wigmore Hall
photo credit Simon Jay Price
The final group of songs saw DiDonato and Pappano returning to Broadway with Kern's Can't help lovin' dat man from Showboat and Richard Rogers' My funny valentine from Babes in Arms. Though Can't help lovin' dat man was bluesy, DiDonato sang it with a very fine thread of voice and a lovely rhythmic flexibility. This carried on through My funny valentine, which she started unaccompanied, but it was also very sexy. The recital finished with David Krane's arrangement of How can I keep from singing by Robert Lowry (1826 - 1899) and I have to say that I found the arrangement over complicated, and I longed for something a little simpler.

The Lowry was actually rather a downbeat ending to the recital and so, not surprisingly, we had two upbeat encores in quick succession Kern's All the things you are and Irving Berlin's I love a piano.  DiDonato and Pappanno had great fun with this latter song, and it was in many senses the finale to the recital. Then finally a third encore, Somewhere over the Rainbow.

The entire recital was sung from memory and, the Villa Lobos apart, you hardly needed the printed words so communicative was DiDonato both in terms of her diction and presentation of the songs; she is a performer who is expressive both musically and visually. Throughout she was able supported by Antonio Pappano, who seemed equally at home in Haydn's busy quasi orchestral piano, Santoliquido's Debussy-esque wash or the more specific requirements of the great American songbook. DiDonato treated us to two very spectacular dresses, which certainly lit up the platform whilst Pappano seemed to have opted for comfort and play in his pyjamas.

A recital from Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano was never going to be anything less than superb. DiDonato's performances of the Broadway songs admirably avoided sentimentality and were rather poignant, particularly the Jerome Kern, but the overall programme seemed to lack an element of grit, it glided along a little too easily. Perhaps if the Santoliquido songs had had more depth to them, but the first half seemed a little to pleasantly entertaining which hardly contrasted with the second half at all. This was a wonderful evening, but it came quite close to easy listening.

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