Friday 14 November 2014

Anthems for Doomed Youth - The Myrthen Ensemble

Myrthen Ensemble
Anthems for Doomed Youth; The Myyrthen Ensemble; Wimbledon International Music Festival at St John's Church, Wimbledon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 12 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Intense and moving recital from this young ensemble

The Myrthen Ensemble is a group of young singers and accompanist who, in the mould of The Songmakers' Almanac, perform concerts together, sacrificing a degree of recital independence for the ability to create something which is greater than the some of its parts. On Wednesday 12 November 2014 the Myrthen Ensemble, soprano Katherine Broderick, mezzo-soprano Clara Mouriz, tenor Benjamin Hulett, baritone Marcus Farnsworth and pianist Joseph Middleton, presented their programme Anthems for Doomed Youth at St John's Church, Wimbledon as part of the Wimbledon International Music Festival.

There were four groups of songs , each with a loose theme and with songs from a different group of countries. Germany and Austria had songs of death and of ghosts by Schubert, Mahler and Wolf, France and Spain had songs by Faure, Duparc, poulenc, Grannados and Debussy on departures and returns (or failures to return), America and Russia had songs by Barber, Ned Rorem, Montsalvatge, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky on the pain of army life, and The British Isles had songs by Ireland, Somervell, Finzi, James Macmillan and Ivor Gurney on the effects and aftermath of war. The result was a powerful and compelling programme.

Katherine Broderick - photo credit Paul Foster-Williams
Katherine Broderick
photo credit Paul Foster-Williams
The group opened off stage, singing Schubert's part-song Grab und Mond D893 from the rear of the chancel. Their quietly vibrant account of such an evocative song setting the mood for the programme. Katherine Broderick and Benjamin Hulett then came on stage for Mahler's Wo di schonen Trompeten blasen from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Broderick and Hulett dividing the dialogue of the young girl and her lover. Broderick's richly upholstered voice added warmth to her sober, thoughtful reading of the song, whilst Hulett's still beauty made it clear that it was the young man's ghost returning, both complemented by Joseph Middleton's highly evocative piano. Marcus Farnsworth sang Wolf's Der Tambour, his finely focussed baritone set off by his vividly characterful storytelling, and not a little wit. Middleton's crisp piano playing helped set the mood. Finally in this group, another Schubert part song, this time on-stage with piano accompaniment, the sober and expressive Nun lasst uns den Leib begraben. The four voices, lieder singers not ensemble sngers, listening to each other and creating a vibrant ensemble.

Clara Mouriz - photo credit JM Bielsa
Clara Mouriz
photo credit JM Bielsa
Faure's Les berceaux sung by Clara Mouriz opened the second group. A rather melancholy berceuse about the ships leaving the quay. A long sinuous vocal line made initensely expressive by Mouriz's fabulous smoky and dark mezzo-soprano voice. Mouriz also sang Duparc's Au pays ou se fait la guerre, giving the lovely, haunting song a very intent and characterful performance, very dramatic at times but very moving. Benjamin Hulett sang Poulenc's Bleuet, a setting from 1939 of an Apollinaire poem written in 1917. The lyric beauty of Hulett's voice combined with a sense of line and attention to the words to really capture the bitter-sweet tone of the song. Mouriz returned, thrillingly intense and vividly passionate in Granados's La maja dolorosa. You certainly don't get singing like this in English song recitals every day, and it showed up the very great virtues of the group, each of the singers had a very different type of voice, not just voice type by fach as well. Each complemened the other and provided us with a different attitude to song.

Benjamin Hulett
Benjamin Hulett
What to follow Mouriz and Granados? Broderick sang Poulenc's Priez pour paix, her simple and direct performance made rather powerful by the vibrancy of her voice. Finally all four singers returned to the stage for Debussy's Noel des enfants, his 1915 carol written as a protest against the German attack on France. Fast and intent, the song made a lovely change of texture to the recital.

The second half opened with Samuel Barber's I hear an army, setting James Joyce, sung by Katherine Broderick. Broderick's vibrantly vivid performance and Middleton's exciting piano created a strong combination of words and drama. Ned Rorem's A specimen case sets part of the diary of a doctor working in the American Civil War. Marcus Farnsworth gave a very plain and direct performance which made the song profoundly affecting. Xavier Montsalvatge's Cuba dentro de un piano from Canciones negras of 1945 (a group of songs inspired by the music of Cuba and surrounding island) was dramatically evocative. Mouriz's dark timbre and smokily vivid performance, combined with the Cuban rhythms in voice and piano to create a mesmerising performance with a lovely sting in the tail. Mouriiz continued with Rachmaninov's The Soldier's Wife, a rather different deeply melancholy song.  Broderick completed the group with Mussorgsky's The Fieldmarshall from Songs and Dances of Death. Broderick and Middleton brought real drama to the piece with Middleton's account of the terrific (and terrifying) piano part complementing Broderick's story telling and superb vocal technique.

Marcus  Farnsworth
Marcus  Farnsworth
For the final group we moved into English, the predominant mood was the English pastoral composers response to World War One, but not predominantly so. John Ireland's Spring will not wait is based on an AE Housman poem and comes from a song cycle, but is in fact a piano solo. Marcus Farnsworth recited some lines from the poem before Joseph Middleton's lovely performance. Arthur Somervell's, Think no more, lad; laugh, be jolly from his 1904 AE Housman cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung by Farnsworth who gave the jolly surface of the song a nice edge. Another Somervell song from A Shropshire Lad, Into my heart an air that kills was given a finely haunting and evocative performance by Benjamin Hulett. The first verse has the voice on a monotone, which Hulett rendered so expressively. Katherine Broderick broke the mood with James Macmillan's unnerving song The Children, setting an English language poem by William Soutar reflecting Soutar's reaction to the Spanish Civil War. It is an austere piece, with a relatively simple vocal line which Broderick sang with unnerving directness. Macmillan surrounds this with a great deal of silence and a piano part which moves from silence to thundering. This was a remarkable and chilling performance, and a fine antidote to the AE Houseman settings.

Joseph Middleton
Joseph Middleton
This unnerving mood continued in Gerald Finzi's Hardy setting Channel Firing. Hardy's poem is a long, complex piece mixing humour and seriousness, with an image of the dead being wakened by the guns and being told to go back to sleep by God. Marcus Farnsworth sang with firm tone, bringing clarity to the words but also brought a gift for storytelling using the colours in his voice aptly. Finally Benjamin Hulett and Joseph Middleton gave a magical, perfect acccount of Ivor Gurney's short but haunting In Flanders.

St John's Church is slightly strange as a concert venue. Before the concert I went to the toilet and found myself walking through an area being shared by the artists and a group of young girls (separated by a curtain), and the toilet arrangements involved a similar sharing. And churches are simply not always the best place for vocal recitals. But the acoustic is very fine indeed, and placing the piano in front of the screen enabled the singers to have a very real communication with their audience. This was a real group event, there was no coming and going during the performance; the four singers sat at the side of the platform for the duration. Each combination of singer and song made me want to hear more of that particular singer in that repertoire, but each strong performance built up into a very powerful whole. All held together with Joseph Middleton's sympathetic and highly skilled piano.
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