Tuesday 20 January 2015

Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton in Schumann

Kitty Whately (credit: Natalie Watts)
Kitty Whately
credit: Natalie Watts
Schumann Frauenliebe und -Leben, Drei Gesänge, Fünf Lieder; Kitty Whately, Joseph Middleton; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 19 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Finely crafted and vividly performed all Schumann recital from BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist

Monday's BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall (19/1/2015) was mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, accompanied by Joseph Middleton in an all Schumann programme. All the songs in the programme had texts by Adelbert von Chamiso and all were written within the space of a single week in 1840. Of the three groups of songs the best known was Frauenliebe und -Leben Op.42, but Whately and Middleton also included the Drei Gesänge Op.31 and started with the Fünf Lieder Op.40 which include the three settings of Adelbert von Chamiso's translations of poems by Hans Christian Anderson.

Joseph Middleton - credit Sussie Ahlberg
Joseph Middleton - credit Sussie Ahlberg
Schumann's Fünf Lieder Op.40 has at its centre the three Hans Christian Anderson settings, Muttertraum, Der Soldat and Der Spielmann, which are remarkable for Schumann's response to Anderson's bleak poems; in his programme note Gerald Larner talked of the way the songs anticipate Mahler. But Schumann prefixed and concluded the group with settings of more straightforward poems.

In the delicate Märzveilchen (March Violets), Kitty Whately sang with intimate charm, with a nice sense of the young girl confiding in us. The first Hans Christian Anderson setting, Muttertraum (A mother's dream) started off in sombre mode with Bachian counterpoint in the piano and a long winding melody which Whately projected with calm, until the final verse when the ravens come to torment the praying mother. Here the song became weirdly eerie, with Whately and Middleton responding with restraint to Schumann's unsettling setting. The song concluded with a powerful postlude in the piano.  

Der Soldat (The Soldier) is equally strange with the soldier facing the firing squad, and here Schumann responds with a march which has strong pre-echoes of Mahler. Whately was again restrained, but with a strong sense of character and bringing out the unnerving undertow in the song. She and Middleton developed the song into a real dramatic narrative, but it never became operatic, Whately always kept within the confines of the song genre. The result was a terrific performance, terrifying for the sense of restraint and suppressed feeling. (One interesting note about the song, the narrator is clearly male as he is a member of the firing squad, the one who kills the soldier. But the narrator is also the soldier's lover, and Schumann very much makes it a love song 'None but him in the world have I loved').

We were in Mahler territory again for Der Spielmann (The Fiddler) with Schumann using a popular style melody in the way that Mahler did, to point the story. Again we had a strong sense of narrative, and a lovely feeling of detail in the words, building to the eerie concluding section. Finally in this group, we came back to earth with Verratene Liebe (Betrayed Love) which was a simpler, charming narrative.

Kitty Whately has a lovely creamy rich mezzo-soprano voice but throughout the concert she used it with restraint, concentrating on creating a sense of character within the songs. She is an intensely vivid performer, a natural story teller and each song was projected with great intent.

Drei Gesänge Op.31 starts with another remarkable and challenging song, Schumann's setting of the ballad Die Löwenbraut (The Lion's Bride). Here Schumann contrasts the relative simplicity of the lion keeper's daughter with the powerful music for the lion depicted, at first, in the piano interludes. Whately developed the story in a calm, thoughtful way as she told the story very directly until the drama of the second half when drama develops. Here words were vividly spat out, complemented by Middleton's strong evocation of the lion. Die Kartenlegerin  (The fortune teller) was a complete contrast with its delicate delight in the piano part. Whately brought out the vividness of the young girls emotions, with their rapid changes, as she tells her fortune on the cards. Finally Die rote Hanne (Red Hannah) another ballad, this time about the wife of a convicted poacher. Here Schumann writes a refrain which was sung by Rowan Pierce, Polly Leech, Joel Williams and Jerome Knox. Schumann's response to the rather tragic subject matter was rather folk-like, and the song is remarkably low key with the performers bringing out the underlying sense of the sad but familiar tragic tale.

Finally Frauenliebe und -leben Op.42, Schumann's setting of eight Chamiso poems about a woman falling in love an marrying. Chamiso took the poems right through to her being a widow and grandmother, but Schumann stopped the cycle at the moment her husband dies thus concluding in a shocked and dazed manner, and giving the cycle an entirely different feel.

Seit ich ihn gesehen  (Since first seeing him) was sung with simplicity, and a beautiful sense of shape to the phrases, complemented by Middleton's intimate piano accompaniment. Where Schumann allows the melody line to develop, Whately let the voice blossom, but throughout she kept the sense of the young woman, dumbstruck. Er, der Herrlichste von allen (He, the most wonderful of all) had a lovely sense of youthful emotion, demure but still carried away until the serious profundity of the final verse. Ich kann's nicht fassen (I cannot grasp it) was confiding, but with a sense of barely contained excitement. Du Ring an meinem Finger (You ring on my finger) had a simple dignity, with great beauty of phrase and when she talks about being transfigured, the music was too. Helft mir, ihr Schwestern overflowed with barely contained enthusiasm. Susser Freund, du blickest (Sweet Friend you look) was held back, with a feeling of wonder and tenderness, with Whately exhibiting a wonderful feeling of control. An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust (On my heart, at my breast) continued this, with a lovely projection of character. Then the final song Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan (Now you have caused me my first pain) broke the mood in numbed quiet. Here Whately and Middleton were slow and intense, with Whately singing with direct, plangent tone and the final verse bleak and drained. For the postlude, Schumann magically brings back the music of the opening song, to make a profoundly touching conclusion.

Whately brought a youthful brightness of tone to the songs, with a rich creamy texture to the voice. ; the vocal line lithe and flexible, with speeds always moderate to flowing giving a sense of youthful movement. Throughout the cycle Middleton was very much an equal partner, contributing to the intensity with which the songs were projected and characterised, full of vivid emotion.

We were treated to an encore, a further Schumann setting of Chamiso, Was soll ich sagen.

You can listen to the recital on-line on the BBC Radio 3 website for another 30 days. Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton's disc This Other Eden is forthcoming on Champs Hill Records. (see article on YouTube).

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