Wednesday 23 March 2016

Nocturnal moments - Myrthen Ensemble in Songs to the Moon at the Wigmore Hall

The Myrthen Ensemble
The Myrthen Ensemble
Brahms, Schumann, Peter Warlock, Elizabeth Maconchy, Samuel Barber, Joseph Szuc, Frederic Mompou, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Dupar, Gabriel Fauré; The Myrthen Ensemble - Mary Bevan, Clara Mouriz, Nicky Spence, Marcus Farnsworth, Joseph Middleton; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Young performers explore songs to moon, in German, English & French

Assembled in 2012 by pianist Joseph Middleton and inspired by Graham Johnson's Songmaker's Almanac, the Myrthen Ensemble creates programmes for solo, duet and quartet and piano around a specific theme. At the Wigmore Hall on 20 March 2016, the evening's theme was 'Songs to the Moon', which is well provided for in the repertoire, and it made for a very varied evening, with music by Brahms, Schumann, Peter Warlock, Elizabeth Maconchy, Samuel Barber, Joseph Szuc, Frederic Mompou, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Dupar, Gabriel Fauré sung by Mary Bevan, Clara Mouriz, Nicky Spence, and Marcus Farnsworth accompanied by Joseph Middleton. Nicky Spence was a late tenor replacement for Allan Clayton but the programme was unchanged. The group are more or less contemporaries and well matched both vocally and in their commitment to this repertoire.

We started with Brahms, whose confused relationship with the many women in his life is well documented, not least in his song output. The first number, a quartet, 'Der Gang zum Liebchen' (The walk to the beloved), deposited us immediately in this ambivalent, intoxicating world, as the insecure lover asks the doves and the breezes to ensure no-one steals his love. 'Walpurgisnacht' was a spooky tale of witches told by a mother to her credulous daughter with a densely written and stunningly played piano part.

The first solo – and the first number sung without the score – was 'Unbewegte laue Luft' from Marcus Farnsworth. It was also a change from the folksy style of the previous songs, moving from a suffocating beginning to a pressure-cooker ending in the airless garden. 'Standchen' (Serenade) is often done flightily by a light soprano, but here mezzo Clara Mouriz made it more grown-up with her knowing 'Vergiß nicht mein' (Don't forget me). The high point of this set was 'Der Abend' (Evening), a setting for quartet of an epic (though short) Schiller poem.

The Schumann set switched from the hapless Brahms to the happily matched Schumanns a quartet followed by a series of solos. First 'Mondnacht' (Moonlit night), a notoriously difficult song pulled off with poise by Mary Bevan, followed Marcus Farnsworth's charming gondolier in 'Venetianisches Lied', then 'Die Lotosblume' (The lotus flower) in a key that was too low and made Mouriz sound unstable in the middle of her voice.

By the interval we asked: 'Do we think they are enjoying themselves?' It felt as though they were overly reverent and careful, not just in the quartets with new boy Nicky Spence, but in the duets and some of the solos too. They were a little too attached to the score.

The second half was a more relaxed affair, starting with English and moving to French. Spence gave a beautifully still rendition of Warlock's 'The Night', followed by Bevan singing Maconchy's 'Sun, Moon and Stars' to poems by Thomas Traherne, its soaring lines delivered without sacrificing intelligibility. Farnsworth sang Barber's gorgeous 'Nocturne' and Spence entranced with Joseph Szulc's setting of Verlaine's 'Clair de lune' – though written by a Pole it couldn't have sounded more French. Mouriz was on home ground with a song by Federico Mompou and Bevan gave us Debussy's massive 'Apparition' with Middleton's stunning orchestral accompaniment. In fact, the piano playing was the most consistent element of the evening.

The final number, a soprano-mezzo duet 'Tarentelle', required an abandon that Bevan and Mouriz didn't manage to find – clearly they are technically capable but they were too glued to the score to pull it off. There were some lovely things in the programme, but it felt like a show you'd like to see later on in the run.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Der Gang zum Liebchen Op. 48 No. 1; Walpurgisnacht Op. 75 No. 4; Nächtens Op. 112 No. 2; Vor der Tür Op. 28 No. 2; Unbewegte laue Luft Op. 57 No. 8; Ständchen Op. 106 No. 1; Der Abend Op. 64 No. 2; Vergebliches Ständchen Op. 84 No. 4
Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Unterm Fenster Op. 34 No. 3; Mondnacht Op. 39 No. 5; Zwei Venetianische Lieder I Op. 25; Zwei Venetianische Lieder II Op. 25; Die Lotosblume Op. 25; Spanisches Liederspiel Op. 74 In der Nacht

Peter Warlock (1894-1930): The Night
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994): Sun, Moon and Stars
Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Nocturne Op. 13 No. 4
Józef Szulc (1875-1956): Dix mélodies sur des poèmes de Verlaine Op. 83 No. 1 Clair de lune
Federico Mompou (1893-1987): Damunt de tu només les flors
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Guitares et Mandolines
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Apparition
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899): La nuit Op. 11 No. 1
Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947): Chansons grises L'Heure exquise
Henri Duparc (1848-1933): La Fuite
Jules Massenet (1842-1912): Rêvons, c'est l'heure
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Clair de lune Op. 46 No. 2; Pleurs d'or Op. 72; Tarentelle Op. 10 No. 2

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