Monday 11 May 2015

This Other Eden live, Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton in concert with Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton

Kitty Whately - credit Natalie J Watts and the Royal College of Music
Kitty Whately
 credit Natalie J Watts & the Royal College of Music
This Other Eden - An Evening of Poetry and Song; Kitty Whately, Joseph Middleton, Kevin Whately, Madelaine Newton; Champs Hill Music Room
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 9 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Poetry, sung and spoken, in an evening celebrating Kitty Whately's debut recital disc

Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and pianist Joseph Middleton's disc This Other Eden is a combination of music and poetry recorded on the Champs Hill Records label with actors Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton (see my review, and my interview with Kitty Whately), and the disc came out earlier this year. On Saturday 9 May 2015, Kitty Whately, Joseph Middleton, Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton returned to the Champs Hill Music Room (where the disc was recorded) for a concert version of the disc An evening of poetry and song. We heard songs by Ireland, Warlock, Gurney, Howells, Stanford, RVW, Head, Arne, Korngold and Horowitz, piano music by Ireland and Britten, and readings from Shakespeare, Wallter de la Mare, John Clare, Wendell Berry, Thomas Hardy, Jackie Kay, Christina Rosetti, Edward Thomas, Lous Untermeyer and John Masefield.

Joseph Middleton
Joseph Middleton
The music room at Champs Hill is a modern, purpose-built barn-like building on the estate of David and Mary Bowerman who run Champs Hill Records, set up very much to support young artists like Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton.

Their programme was organised into thematic sections like the CD, but with some subtle variations. We started with This England, and moved on to Forests and Gardens, Fields and Meadows, Coasts and Seas, with Britain's Bard, The Words of William Shakespeare to complete the programme. This meant that Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton were able to finish the evening with Joseph Horowitz's wonderful Lady Macbeth - A Scena.

It was billed as an evening of poetry and song, but could just as easily be called an evening of poetry, spoken and sung, because words and their meaning were very much at the heart of Kitty Whately's performances. Not only could we hear every word, but in all the songs there was a clear sense of her responding to the poetry. Always a very communicative singer, in a live event in a relatively intimate hall (seating 160) ,you always felt she was singing to us, narrating, confiding in an often intimate manner, but always very direct and involving.

The programme took a little time to settle, the four performers had not performed this concert programme together (the spoken and sung parts of the disc were recorded separately) and it was only as things developed that we reaped the benefit of the way the spoken and sung parts responded to each other. By the end of the evening you felt the spoken poetry setting the scene and mood for the sung poetry. I also felt that Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton took some time to settle into the room and relax with the audience.

But the very first song, John Ireland's Earth's Call was still finely rhapsodic with an inviting sense of narrative to it, plus some richly evocative piano playing. In fact the event had opened with Kevin Whately's scene setting reading of This Scepter'd Isle' the speech from Act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare's Richard II. Following the John Ireland, Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton performed Peter Warlock's My Own Country setting Hilaire Belloc. This is an almost folk-ish song, with Kitty Whately singing with an almost effortless sense of ease to the voice. Finally in this group, Madelaine Newton read Walter de la Mare's England.

We then moved from This England to Forests and Gardens. Kevin Whately read John Clare's In Hilly Wood then Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton sang The Salley Gardens by Ivor Gurney, as rather gentler, melancholy piece than Britten's, with a lovely tune and a beautifully direct performance. Madelaine Newton read Wendell Berry's The Peace of Wild Things followed by the song King David by Herbert Howells, setting Walter de la Mare. There was a certain English melancholy rapture to the piece, which Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton made rather magical. Madelaine Newton read Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush which was followed by Charles Villiers Stanford's setting of John Keats, La bell dame sans merci. Here Kitty Whately made what can be a rather prosy poem work as a vivid musical dramatic narrative, with some vivid drama and chilling final section. Finally, Madelaine Newton read The World of Trees by Jackie Kay.

Kevin Whately reading Norman Nicholson's Scafell Pike led into Fields and Meadows, with Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton then performing RVW's Silent Noon, with its long unwinding lines given a real feeling of delight and wonder. This was very much a Rosetti group as RVW's song, setting Dante Gabriel Rosetti was followed by a Madelaine Newton reading Christina Rosetti's The Lambs of Grasmere, and then Michael Head's setting of Christina Rosetti's A Green Cornfield. This had a more youthful, insouciant feel with a sense of the singer's delight in feeling. Kevin Whately's reading of a line from AE Housman's Spring will not wait led directly into Joseph Middleton's fine account of John Ireland's piano solo of the same name. This section concluded with Kevin Whately's reading of Edward Thomas's Adlestrop which real brought out the low-key English rapture which underlay the whole programme.

Coasts and Seas started with a pair of AE Housman poems read by Kevin Whately, Into my heart an air that kills and O stay at home my lad and plough followed by Kitty Whately's rather affecting unaccompanied account of the Northumberland folksong Ma Bonny Lad. Following Madelaine Newton reading Louis Untermeyer's The Swimmers we plunged straight into Benjamin Britten's piano solo Eartly Morning Bathe in a glittering performance from Joseph Middleton. Kevin Whately read John Masefield's poem Sea Fever and this half of the programme concluded with Michael Head's song The Estuary, to which the performers gave a strongly evocative musical pictures which underpin Head's setting of the text.

The interval gave us a chance to have a glass of wine in the lovely garden surrounding the hall, with some superb views of the South Downs.

The shorter second half was something of a relief as we finally left the English pastoral behind, beautiful though the performances were I did rather welcome a little of the grit to come.

Kevin Whately's reading from As You Like It lead directly into Thomas Arne's Shakespeare setting Under the Greenwood Tree. Kitty Whately was charmingly blithe here, with Joseph Middleton providing some lovely twiddly bits on the piano. Madelaine Newton reading Gertrude's speech from Act Four, scene seven of Shakespeare's Hamlet, There is a willow grows aslant a brook, again set the mood for The Willow Song, the first of Korngold's Four Shakespeare Songs. The Willow Song was rather haunting, bleakly sad and deceptively simple, certainly not what you would expect from the Korngold of the film scores and the violin concerto. Under the Greenwood Tree had a similar but rather blither tone, yet used a richer harmonic palate. Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind was surprisingly rhythmic but with a catchy, yet melancholy refrain. Finally there was the perky insouciance to It was a lovely and his lass with a suggestion of jazzy hints.

Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton then performed scene five, from Act one of Shakespeare's Macbeth which was followed by Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton in Joseph Horowitz's Lady Macbeeth: A scena. This takes three key scenes from the play and dramatises them into a long soliloquy. First the dramatic declamation of Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; with the strongly projected words of the arioso-like recitative supported by a strong piano. Then the deed is done in the vividly intense He is about it: The doors are open: and the surfeited grooms do mock their chage with snores: with its neurotic piano part. Finally the mad scene, Out, damned spot! out I say which Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton turned into mesmerising drama with an unnerving end.

The packed audience was very enthusiastic so we were treated to an encore, Roger Quilter's setting of O Mistress Mine.

The combination of poetry and song work very well in a live context, and you felt that this was something to be explored. It was lovely to hear poetry spoken, and many of the poems chosen were ones which I would rarely read but in live performance proved engaging and involving, as well as being able to see interesting linkages between spoken and sung texts.

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