Saturday 14 November 2015

La Serenissima - London Song Festival

Lucy Hall - Photo: Tom Southall
Lucy Hall - Photo: Tom Southall
Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Gabriel Faure, Reynaldo Hahn, Gioacchino Rossini, Francis Poulenc, Erich Korngold, Franz Liszt, Ian Venables, James Lark; Lucy Hall, Gavin Roberts; London Song Festival at church of St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Intelligent programming and delightfully vibrant performances

Gavin Robert - photo Felipe Tozzato
Gavin Robert
photo Felipe Tozzato
The London Song Festival, artistic director Nigel Foster, stopped off in Venice for the concert on 13 November 2015 at the Church of St Mary Magdalene, as part of the festival's tour of musical cities. Soprano Lucy Hall and pianist Gavin Roberts (both part of the Young Artists Platform of the Oxford Lieder Festival) were joined by actor Kevin Phelan for a programme of readings and songs, with music by Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Gabriel Faure, Reynaldo Hahn, Gioacchino Rossini, Francis Poulenc, Erich Korngold, Franz Liszt, Ian Venables and James Lark.

The programme mixed readings and songs seamlessly into a single whole, devised by Gavin Roberts. We heard extracts from letters by Gabriel Faure, Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner, along with readings from John Hay, Henry Wadworth Longfellow, John Addington Symons and from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, plus extracts from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Othello, the Moor of Venice.

We started with a piano solo, the Venetianisches Gondellied, op.19 no. 6, one of three piece of that name which Felix Mendelssohn wrote. Very much a song without words, Gavin Roberts played with lovely singing tone in the right hand plus a lovely strong accompaniment. Mendelssohn's Venetianisches Gondellied Op.57 No. 5  followed, setting Ferdinand Freiligrath's German version of a poem by Thomas Moore. A lyrical song, slightly more complex than a simple strophic song sung with a lovely vibrant line by Lucy Hall. The final Gondollied Op.1 No.6 was by Fanny rather than Felix, in fact many of Fanny's compositions were published in Felix's name. Again setting a German version of Thomas Moore, this time by Emanuel von Geibel, this was a delightful lyrical song with a gorgeous rippling and flowing piano accompaniment. Lucy Hall brought a lovely appealing charm to her performance.

Next came Robert Schumann's setting of another of Ferdinand Freiligrath's German versions of Thomas Moore, Venetisnisches Lied I Op.25 no. 17 written as part of Myrthen, Schumann's wedding present to his wife Clara. Here there was a lovely rocking feel to the piano, and a nice directness to the performance, with Hall singing with involving vividness.

We heard to of Gabriel Faure's Cinq melodies 'De Venise' Op. 58, Verlaine settings which the composer started writing when he was staying in Venice. Mandoline combined a perky piano part with a seductive yet vibrant lyric line from Lucy Hall, whilst En Sourdine contrasted a flowing piano with a sense of calm in the long vocal lines.

The first half concluded with five of Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia, Six Chansons en dialecte venitien which were written when Hahn was in Venice with his then lover Marcel Proust. Lucy Hall sang all the songs with a lovely vibrant yet lyric line, with a lovely light touch. Sopra l'acqua informendzada was involving and engaging. La Barcheta was sung with a suggestive twinkle in the eye and a seductive shapeliness to the vocalise at the end of each verse. L'Avertimento was darker, and full of character, whilst La Biondina in Gondoleta had a lovely seductive accompaniment complementing the long flowing vocal lines. Hall provided great attention to the combination of words and music, being nicely suggestive here, and Che peca was delightfully expressive and sly. In all the songs she did just enough to bring subtle character to the narrative whilst keeping the easy feel of the lines.

After the interval we started with Gioacchino Rossini's La Gita in Gondola from Soirees Musicales, with its delightful piano part and Lucy Hall's lovely caress in the vocal line. Francis Poulenc's tell me here is fancy bred sets words from The Merchant of Venice so the performance was preceded by a reading from the play to set the beautifully shaped performance of the song in context.

Quite why Schubert's Metastasio setting, Didone Abbandonata, was doing in the programme became apparent when it was preceded by Lucy Hall and Kevin Phelan's reading of the 'In such a night' speech from The Merchant of Venice.  The work is a grand classical aria, rather old fashioned in style and hardly recognisable as mature Schubert. But it was given a brilliantly dramatic musical performance from Hall and Roberts.

We continued the Shakespeare theme with a reading from Othello, the Moor of Venice followed by Erich Korngold's setting of Desdemona's Song. Written in 1937-1941, beautiful if conservative in style, finely and intelligently sung.

Liszt's piano solo, RW-Venezia, was written to commemorate Wagner's death in 1883, and received a finely considered performance from Gavin Roberts.

Ian Venables (born 1955) wrote his settings of John Addington Symonds in 1995 as part of Four Venetian Songs. Fortunate Isles was richly romantic, but we could detect few of Lucy Hall's words. Love's Voice was starker, more complex yet still lyrically melodic.

The second Rossini song, again from Soirees Musicales, came next. La Pastorella dell Alpi was a complete delight with Hall and Roberts bringing strong character to the piece.

Finally they sang Venice by James Lark (born 1979), a setting of Noel Coward which was written for the Songmakers Almanac in 2012. It is a tricky piece because Coward's text is macaronic, combining English and Italian. Perhaps because the text did not come over well in the generous church acoustic, the result was slightly curious and I rather wanted far more text and far less melody.

This was a lovely recital, well structured and beautifully performed. Gavin Robert's intelligent piano playing formed a nice complement to Lucy Hall's vibrant performances, lyrical yet characterful.

The London Song Festival continues with visits to New York: The City That Never Sleeps with Kristin Dauphinais and Nigel Foster on 20 November, and Seville: City of Towers with Lorena Paz Nieto, Josep-Ramon Olive and Nigel Foster on 27 November.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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