Sunday 6 December 2015

Muhly premiere and Britten canticles at the Wigmore Hall

James Baillieu and Allan Clayton at the Wigmore Hall, photo Clive Barda
James Baillieu and Allan Clayton at the Wigmore Hall, photo Clive Barda
Purcell, Britten, Muhly, Adès, Barber; Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton, James Baillieu; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 04 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Music for two voices and piano from Purcell to Britten and Nico Muhly

Friday 4 December 2015's recital at the Wigmore Hall was an interesting confluence of a number of the hall's series, notably the Song Recital Series, Contemporary Music Series, Introducing James Baillieu and Focus on Nico Muhly. The recital featured pianist James Baillieu accompanying counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and tenor Allan Clayton. The programme combined Purcell (in realisations/arrangements) by Britten, Tippett and Thomas Adès, with Britten's canticles My Beloved is Mine and Abraham and Isaac, Thomas Adès' The Lover in Winter and the world premiere of Nico Muhly's Lorne ys my liking, plus Samuel Barber's Three Songs, and folk song arrangements by Britten and Muhly. The whole sort of worked, partly thanks to the superb performances from the three performers. It was also fascinating from the standpoint of seeing how the influence of Purcell threaded his way through the music.

James Baillieu and Iestyn Davies at the Wigmore Hall, photo Clive Barda
James Baillieu and Iestyn Davies at the Wigmore Hall, photo Clive Barda
We opened with three Purcell realisations performed by Iestyn Davies and James Baillieu, Music for a while arranged by Michael Tippett, Sweeter than roses  realised by Benjamin Britten and Full Fathom Five realised by Thomas Adès. In all three the vocal line seemed unchanged so were were able to appreciate the beauties of line and tone provided by Iestyn Davies, along with a superb attention to the words. Perhaps singing with piano he was able to sing rather fuller than he might to with harpsichord or lute, but the biggest difference of course was what was happening in the accompaniment. Tippett provided an arrangement which seemed pure Purcell with just hints of Tippett, whilst Britten's realisation was more interventionist with a greater sense of the 20th century composer's personality, and the realisation by Thomas Adès seemed hardly to be 17th century at all.

This group was followed by Allan Clayton and James Baillieu performing Britten's Canticle 1: My Beloved is Mine  with its strangely homoerotic quasi religious text. Britten's flowing accompaniment did bring out hints of Purcell, and some of the lyrical rapture and vocal flourishes seemed Purcell inspired as well. Allan Clayton sang with a lovely combination of beauty of tone, and a strong sense of line, both he and Baillieu gave performances which were full of vivid detail. And Clayton gave a real sense that the words truly meant something so that passages like 'he is my altar' were very striking and the ending was pure magic.

Thomas Adès wrote The Lover in Winter in 1989 when he was 18, it is his earliest published composition. It sets a section of a Latin love poem from around 1200 and Adès is brilliant at evoking both the medieval sound world and the hardness of winter depicted (which contrasts with the lover being afire with love). Sung by Iestyn Davies accompanied by James Baillieu, the work moved between uncompromising and lyrical rapture, both encompassed finely by the performers.There were some magical textures in the piano, along with a superb evocation of the frigidity of Winter's cold. The whole was in fact rather bravura with a strong sense of Adès' distinct voice.

Next came Britten's second canticle, Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac which was written for Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier in 1952 but is now commonly sung by a tenor and counter-tenor, here Allan Clayton and Iestyn Davies. Rather interestingly, the passages were the two sing together as God were sung with backs to the audience, singing into the piano which gave them a very special resonance indeed. Clayton was firm yet flexible, with a lovely mobile yet virile tone, whilst Davies was fluidly flowing in his delivery. Both were superb in their attention to the words. The moment when Isaac learns that he is to be the sacrifice was poignant yet cool, leading to a shattering climax on the piano.

The second half opened with the world premiere of Nico Muhly's Lorne ys my liking written, like Britten's second canticle, for the combination of alto, tenor and piano. The work was co-commissioned by the Wigmore Hall specially for the concert; James Baillieu was instrumental in the commission and it was funded partly from his Borletti Buitoni Trust Fellowship funds. His reward was to help bring to life a remarkably striking new work, and one which rewarded Baillieu with a dazzling piano part which was far more than accompaniment. Muhly set a passage from the 19th Chester Mystery Play which imagines Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi and Mary Salome at Christ's tomb. But Muhly does not set the text in a straightforward dramatic manner, and the two voices weave in and out, sometime answering each other's phrases. The result was a combination of lyrical voices and percussive, vibrant piano, and Muhly slips in some surprisingly modern rhythms too! When the angels appear they are not lovely angelic beings, but in fact rather fierce .

The piece was overall rather a tour de force, particularly for the piano and all three performers gave a fully vivid performance, showing up Muhly's fine word setting. In a gesture worthy of Percy Grainger, for the concluding half of the last verse, Allan Clayton wandered over to the piano and started playing too, leaving Iestyn Davies to be accompanied by this newly enrichened accompaniment, and then when Davies had finished singing he too wandered over to the piano so it finished with a piano trio finale!

Samuel Barber's Three Songs Op. 10 came as something of a contrast. Written in the mid to late 1930's all three set poems by James Joyce from his 1907 publication Chamber Music. For Rain has fallen we heard a lovely web of tracery in the piano (evoking rain perhaps) complementing the lyrical slow moving vocal part which, however, did reach some real heights of passion. Sleep now contrasted the haunting, beautifully shaped outer verses with the edgier middle verse when the voice of Winter is heard. Finally I hear an army was busy, vivid and rather edgy. Allan Clayton sang with a good firm, strong line and the end of the song reach a really powerful climax.

Nico Muhly's Four Traditional Songs (2011) were written almost in emulation of Britten's folksongs. Sung by Iestyn Davies, they all had beautifully rendered vocal parts and one could almost have imagined them sung unaccompanied. For A brisk young lad, and Searching for lambs, Muhly added a deceptively simple piano accompaniment. In The Cruel Mother, Iestyn Davies started unaccompanied with the discreet piano joining him. It is a very strange tale indeed and could, perhaps have handled a more interventionist approach. For the bitter withy, Iestyn Davies sang unaccompanied with James Baillieu contributing a single piano line between, verses.

Benjamin Britten's folk song arrangements are relatively familiar but no less welcome. Allan Clayton and James Baillieu performed four of them, Sally in our Alley, The plough boy, I wonder as I wander and Oliver Cromwell. Allan Clayton performed with a lovely combination of musicality and humour, bringing out the individual qualities of the songs with great vividness. Clearly having fun, he still sang the final one, Oliver Cromwell, at a terrific lick making it both funny and bravura.

Finally we had a pair of duets by Purcell, in realisations by Benjamin Britten Lost is my quiet for ever was very affecting, but here the amount of Britten in the accompaniment pushed it very close to re-composition. This also applied to Sound the trumpet which included some strikingly naughty Britten-isms in the piano. Normally sung by two counter-tenors, here Allan Clayton admirably matched Iestyn Davies twiddle for twiddle.

The Wigmore Hall was full and the audience enthusiastic so we were treated to an encore, Britten's arrangement of The Deaf Woman's Courtship made originally for a recital tour he made with Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier. Here Davies and Clayton gave it a twist by swapping registers for all but the last verse, with Davies singing in his baritone register and Clayton offering falsetto, with the final verse (when the old woman can finally hear her admirer) sung in the usual registers. Great fun.

I have to confess that the Britten/Tippett realisations of Purcell are something which I can take only in small doses. I can see why the programme was put together, and there were indeed some interesting linkages. That said, I did not feel that the programme as a whole gelled into a satisfying whole but overall it was notable for the superb performances individual items and of course the striking Muhly premiere.

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