Monday 19 January 2015

Secrets and Obsessions - Songsmiths

Songsmiths - Wigmore Hall
Secrets and Obsessions: Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan,Anna Huntley, Marcus Farnsworth, Jonathan Lemalu, Audrey Hyland; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 18 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Secret desires explored in this stunning programme from the young group of singers with pianist Audrey Hyland

Secrets and Obsessions was a Sunday afternoon journey through secret desires, obsessions and anxieties from pianist Audrey Hyland and Songsmiths at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 18 January 2015. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Mary Bevan, mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley, baritone Marcus Farnsworth and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu sang songs and duets by Balfe, Messager, Mendelssohn, Hahn, Granados, Rodrigo, Gurney, Brahms, Weill, Loewe, Wolf, Schoenberg, Britten, Schubert, Butterworth and Richard Strauss.

The format of the concert was clearly inspired by those of the Songmakers Almanac, all the singers were on the platform, the songs were performed from memory and the entire programme ran without a break with applause being restricted to the very end. We thus, were taken on a journey and though there were indeed some incredibly fine individual performances the result did add up to rather more than the sum of its parts. Few of the songs were what might be called mainstream lieder or song-recital fare, and many were unusual, but all contributed strongly. It helped that each song or duet was given a strongly idiomatic performance and for many it was difficult not to burst into applause after.

Mary Bevan and Elizabeth Watts kicked things off with Michael Balfe's delightful Trust Her Not, a setting of a Longfellow poem from around 1855. It is light, almost operetta-esque, and the two sopranos gave it a charmingly insouciant and suggestive performance. Still with the operetta them, Andre Messager's J'ai deux amants is from his 1923 L'amour masque with a text by Sacha Guitry. Originally sung by Yvonne Printemps, Anna Huntley gave us the right combination of word and music with a cabaret-ish edge again full of suggestive charm. Mendelssohn's Hut du dich (1834) sets the original German (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) on which Longfellow based his poem. Mendelssohn's setting lacked any sense of operetta, of course, but Mary Bevan still responded to the combination of light texture and underlying deeper character. Reynaldo Hahn's Neere (1900) was in his neoclassical mode with a solemn old-style piano accompaniment over which Marcus Farnsworth spun a superbly hypnotic and mesmerising line.

Anna Huntley returned for Granados's El majo discreto (1910) which had quite a popular song feel. Huntely has quite a rich, luxuriant voice but she gave the song the right sort of light touch. Joaquin Rodrigo's Adela (1951) sets a folk-text about a girl dying of love which Rodrigo set in a touching, serious manner. Elizabeth Watts sang with a lovely long sense of line, hauntingly beautiful yet full of calmness. Ivor Gurney's Epitaph in the old mode (1920) set a text full of myth-ic style hints which could be related to that be Leconte de Lisle set by Hahn. Marcus Farnsworth sang Gurney's song with moving simplicity, with a gently melancholy yet flowing vocal line complemented by Hyland's richly textured piano accompaniment. Brahms's duet Da unten im Tale set a folksong with Anna Huntley and Marcus Farnsworth as the two lovers gave us a wistful dialogue with a bitter twist.

Kurt Weill's Je ne t'aime pas (1934) returned us to the world of the French diseuse, and was originally sung by Lys Gauty. Weill's haunting melody must be tempting, but Bevan allowed herself no luxuriating self-indulgence in the rich melody. Instead her control paid rich dividends in the mesmerising soft tones and quiet intensity; heartbreaking.

There was a complete change of mood and timbre with bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu's performance of Carl Loewe's Edward (1818), based on a German translation of an 18th century Scots ballad. The plot, about a young man who murders his father at his mother's instigation, is not without Gothic horror and Loewe's setting clearly evokes this. Lemalu started off in admirably restrained manner, narrating the story full of character but keeping us thrillingly on tenterhooks and letting rip at the shocker of an ending. Goethe's Mignon is equally full of shock horror as she is the daughter of an incestuous union, but Hugo Wolf's setting of Goethe moved away from the Gothic and Elizabeth Watts sang with sober restraint, responding to the complex, dark textures of the song yet with a touching quality too.

Arnold Schoenberg's early song Schenk mir dein goldenen Kamm (1899) setting words by Richard Dehmel was something of a surprise. This was Schoenberg writing in a vein not dissimilar to that of Richard Strauss at the same period, lyric but profoundly complex, pushing tonality to the limit. Mary Bevan started off beautifully bleak, but allowed the vocal line to blossom in the ecstatic moments. Another Brahms duet, Walpurgisnacht (1878) was not without its own touch of the Gothic as a daughter discovers her mother is a witch, though Brahms's music was far more folk inspired than Loewe's. Anna Huntley and Mary Bevan were mother and daughter, in a vivid narrative.

Loewe's scene from Goethe's Faust, Ach neige du Schmerzenreiche (1835) was slow and sombre, with a melody line which wandered as the piano stayed steady underneath. Elizabeth Watts was wonderfully touching here, as the abandoned Gretchen. Benjamin Britten's A Poison Tree from his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965) moved us firmly into the 20th century again.  Hyland conjured the slow, sinister and eerie piano part whilst Marcus Farnsworth started with admirable restraint and then allowed the vocal line to blossom as the Turn of the Screw-like chromatic melismas developed. Throughout Farnsworth gave us a real sense of subtle menace as the song build; a stunningly evocative performance from both performers. Jonathan Lemalu was equally mesmerising in the darkly bleak Der Doppelganger from Schubert's Schwanengesang (1828). Starting from a murmur, Lemalu and Hyland slowly and inexorably let the song build.

Lemalu then showed his versatility by moving straight into George Butterworth's Is my team ploughing from A Shropshire Lad (1911) in which Lemalu used light, hushed tones to differentiate the ghost from the far more vigorous man. Again Lemalu demonstrated his strong narrative sense here.

Richard Stokes' programme note explicitly linked the text of Richard Strauss's song Morgen!..., which was written by John Henry Mackay, to the homosexual subtext which runs through much of Mackay's work (see my article about Strauss and Mackay). Rather aptly, Elizabeth Watts performance was slower, more intent and less romantically luxuriant than usual and for once the song become something more than a gorgeous melody but a very powerful statement. (Stokes describes the words as looking forward to the day when gay people can live and love without persecution).

The concert concluded not with song, but with melodrama in Schubert's Abschied von der Erde with each singer speaking a verse. But with such a powerful programme, that could not be the end and after well deserved applause we were treated to Britten's arrangement of Polly Oliver, again with the verses divided up between the singers.

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