Saturday 8 November 2014

London Song Festival: Late Romantics

Ilona Domnich
Ilona Domnich
Rachmaninoff, Marx, Shostakovich, Strauss, Csanyi-Wills; Ilona Domnich, Nigel Foster, Madeleine Mitchell, Jamal Aliyev; London Song Festival
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 30 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Five late-Romantic composers in Nigel Foster's festival

Late Romantics at the London Song Festival was an unexpected pleasure. I expected it to be good but Nigel Foster (organiser and pianist) has found a real dramatic star in soprano Ilona Domnich.

Domnich was born in St Petersburg. She was 'discovered' by Vera Rózsa, who in her time had taught a young Sarah Walker and Kiri Te Kanawa (amongst many others), and brought Domnich to England to study at the Royal College of Music. Domnich's lyrical voice is ideally suited for drama and her treatment of these songs was an ideal combination of pure heartfelt emotion without over-sentimentality. She sings opera with the ENO and ETO as well as having sung with Co-Opera, and at Grange Park and Buxton opera festivals and going on tonight's performance is someone to look out for.

The pair were supported by violinist Madeleine Mitchell who, when she is not performing, teaches at the Royal College of Music and directs the London Chamber Ensemble, and cellist Jamal Aliyev. Aliyev has won several prizes including the Trakya International Competition, the Muriel Taylor Cello Competition and the V. Antonio Janigro International Competition. This year his success has continued with winning the Royal College of Music Concerto and Violoncello Competitions.

The recital consisted of songs by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Joseph Marx (1882-1964), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and two songs by the modern composer Michael Csanyi-Wills.

'Morgan' was composed by Strauss as a wedding present for his wife Pauline de Ahna in 1894 as was the earliest of the songs included in the concert. Soprano de Ahna was an inspiration for Strauss and he wrote many songs for her including his 'Four Last Songs' in 1948 composed shortly before his death. However the six Brentano Lieder (1918), of which two were included 'And die Nacht' and 'Ich wollt'ein Sträusslein binden', were written not for de Ahna but for Elizabeth Schumann for whom he also wrote the role of Sophie in 'Der Rosenkavalier'.

The difference between the two sets was quite striking. The Brentano Lieder were airy with sparse accompaniment – Strauss allowing the singer freedom – and many changes of mood while the earlier 'Morgan' added the violin to double or play a counter melody, providing a denser sound and a safety net for the singer.

Marx wrote 150 or so Lieder (120 before he was 30!). The three tonight were a setting of 'Marienlied' written by the 18th century poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, 'Der Bescheidene Schäfer' by Christian Felix Weisse and 'Japanisches Regenleid', the most up to date, written in 1909 by Karl Adolf Florenz. The three songs were each individual and allowed Domnich so display a different side of herself from the hopelessly romantic 'Marienlied', to the cutsey comical 'Der Bescheidene Schäfer' and the watery lyricism of the 'Japanisches Regenleid'.

The 'Seven romances of Poems by Alexander Blok' for soprano and cello by Shostakovich were written in 1966-7 and are a dark reminder of the deprivations of war. Very Russian in sound with thunderous piano - the addition of violin and cello enhancing the despair and gloom. While Strauss sometime left the voice alone to carry out the tune, here the voice was often left intoning on a single note while the instruments provided the dramatic scenery.

The final set composed by Rachmaninoff came from 'Opus 21' written around the time of his marriage to Nathalie Satin in 1902 and from 'Opus 38' his final set of songs written in 1916. They returned us to a lighter sound after the Shostakovich with pretty tunes and sensitive accompaniment.

Michael Csanyi-Wills
Michael Csanyi-Wills
The two songs by Csanyi-Wills were settings of his mother's diary as she waited in Budapest for the Russians to liberate them, and a letter written to her children shortly before her death in 1944. Csanyi-Wills style incorporated elements heard throughout the concert fusing them in new and exciting ways. 'The siege' was low in Domnich's voice providing a sense of seriousness, and the piano was prominent – a partner rather than accompaniment. A very effective repeating note (a tolling of a bell?) held together 'The last letter' - keeping the same pitch regardless of chord. In the central section the note became incorporated into the expanding tune but returned for the final section.

Csanyi-Wills studied at the Royal Academy of Music and is currently composer in residence of the Welsh Sinfonia and Head of Composition at the World Heart Beat Music Academy. In addition to concert works he has written a number of film scores including the children's film 'The Little Vampire', and the comedy 'The Trouble with Dot and Harry'.

The London Song Festival this year is being held at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead and continues with concerts and masterclasses until Thursday 27 November.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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