Wednesday 3 December 2014

Brilliant and communicative - Lucy Crowe and Julius Drake at Temple Song

Lucy Crowe - photo credit Marco Borggreve
Lucy Crowe
photo credit Marco Borggreve
Walton, Debussy, Faure, Tate, Dring, RVW, Dunhill, Gurney, Quilter; Lucy Crowe, Julius Drake; Temple Song at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 2 2014
Star rating: 5.0

English and French song in a brilliantly communicative recital

For the last Temple Song recital of 2014, soprano Lucy Crowe joined pianist Julius Drake in Middle Temple Hall on Tuesday 2 December 2014. Their programme mixed English and French song, with Crowe starting with William Walton's A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table and finishing with a group of English songs by Phyllis Tate, RVW, Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney and Roger Quilter. In the middle we had a group of early songs by Claude Debussy, plus his Chansons de Bilitis and five songs by Gabriel Faure.

Julius Drake - photo credit Marco Borggreve
Julius Drake
photo credit Marco Borggreve
A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table was commissioned for the 1962 City of London Festival, when it was premiered by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore. Walton set a varied group of poems all themed on the City of London by Thomas Jordan, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Charles Morris along with two anonymous poems. Walton gave the opening number, The Lord Mayor's Table a grandly brilliant open. Crowe displayed a lovely combination of lyric flexibility with richly powerful tone and not a little wit, finishing with a real feeling of excitement. The cycle is by no means a straightforward piece, and throughout Crowe sang Walton's complex lines with apparent ease, with both accuracy and a sense of freedom. For Wordsworth's Glide Gently she gave us a complete change of vocal colour, using an expressively plangent bleached tone. Then in the anonymous Wapping Old Stair we got a lovely comic scene, which was poignant too. Both Crowe and Drake seemed to relish the jazzier hints in Walton's music here. Blake's Holy Thursday was performed with an expressive simplicity and again a nice feeling for tone colouration and words. Walton's setting of Charles Morris's The Contrast sends up country life and Crowe was a real delight here.  Finally the wonderfully brilliant Rhyme, better known as Oranges and Lemons with Crowe combining a sense of bravura with real fun and a brilliant ending. Listening to Crowe singing this cycle, it set me thinking about the other work which Walton wrote for Schwarzkopf, his opera Troilus and Cressida; it would be wonderful to hear Crowe in the role.

A complete change of tone gave us Claude Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, settings of poems by Pierre Louys inspired by a stay in Algeria. Drake's cool evocative piano at the opening of La flute de Pan complemented Crowe's simplicity and directness in the song. She did not try too hard, and really showed a feeling for the small inflections necessary to make Debussy's apparently simple lines work. Her tone was plangent and subtle, but with moments of real power. La chevelure always brings to mind Melisande, and Crowe's performance made me think of the opera even more. She was still and myysterious, making the words count and both voice and piano were mesmerising at the end 'que je baissai les yeux avec un frisson'. Drake was wonderful in the icily gleaming opening of Le tombeau des Naiades and Crowe made the song atmospheric and pregnant with expectation with her fine tone rising to thrilling power at times.

The first half concluded with a group of five songs by Gabriel Faure. The Sully Prudhomme setting Les berceaux had a lovely barcarolle like feel to the accompaniment, with Crowe spinning expressively flexible lines. Mandoline is a setting of Paul Verlaine and combined a sparkling piano with Crowe's insouciant vocal line to create a glorious serenade. Another sully Prudhomme setting, Au bord de l'eau really flowed like water with a seductive line. Apres un reve, setting a poem by Romain Bussine, was a thing of great beauty but expressive intensity too with a lovely floated vocal line. Finally the vividly passionate and surprisingly busy Fleur jetee setting Armand Silvestre.

Claude Debussy was enormously prolific as a young man, writing over 40 songs by the time he was 21. Crowe and Blake opened the second half with a group of four. Clair de lune set the Paul Verlaine poem but this was not the version that is well known. Debussy set the poem originally in 1882 and returned to it a decade later. The early setting was poised and elegant, with Crowe providing some lovely floated high notes. Beau Soir, setting Paul Bourget, had lovely long lines over an evocative watery piano, with a beautiful bleakness at the end though I did wonder if we would know it was Debussy if we listened blind. Fantoches was another Verlaine setting; Debussy was the first major composer to set Verlaine's poetry. Here he gave us a busy piano with a floating vocal line complete with Faure-esque melismas. Finally the Stephane Mallarme setting Apparition where the evocatively haunting melody was complemented by delicate filigree piano, taking seductiveness to the limit.

Finally Crowe and Drake gave us a collection of English song. Phyllis Tate's arrangement of The lark in the clear air was brightly appealing with a lovely sense of firm, flexible line. Then Crowe sang the folk song She moved through the fair unaccompanied, giving us some hauntingly plangent singing. There was a lovely insouciance, and the odd blue note, in Madeleine Dring's It was a lover and his lass whilst RVW's Silent Noon was done with a mesmerising simplicity. Thomas Dunhill's setting of the WB Yeats poem The cloths of heaven was simple, discreet song which showcased Crowe's lovely high soprano. Ivor Gurney's Sleep, setting John Fletcher, was in another class with a wonderful feeling of controlled rapture, constantly breaking out then restrained. Finally the delightful Shelley setting Love's Philosophy from Roger Quilter.

Crowe is a highly communicative artist, though she used music she hardly seemed to refer to it and every song was a characterful interaction with her audience. Throughout she was wonderfully partnered by Julius Drake who  brought skill and sensitivity to the very varied styles of the different piano parts.

We were treated to an encore, Benjamin Britten's arrangement of The Sally Gardens.
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