Tuesday 5 April 2016

Engaging storytelling: Robin Tritschler and Gary Matthewman at the Wigmore Hall

Robin Tritscher and Gary Matthewman in rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall - photo BBC
Robin Tritscher and Gary Matthewman in rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall
photo BBC
Britten, Berkeley, Tippett; Robin Tritschler, Gary Matthewman; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 4 2016
Delightful recital of Britten & Berkeley settings of Auden, belying the last-minute nature of the programme

Performers standing in at short notice at concerts is a fairly common occurrence so it can become something a listener takes for granted. But the amount of work it takes to assemble a programme at short notice is significant, and a performance being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 is hardly a low key event, so no pressure there!

Tenor Robin Tritschler stood in a the very last moment for the lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall on Monday 4 April 2016, being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. The original recital had been scheduled to be John Mark Ainsley and Gary Matthewman performing a programme centred on Britten's early Auden cycle On This Island with further Britten and Lennox Berkeley settings of Auden and music by Huw Watkins. In the event we got Robin Tritschler and Gary Matthewman in On This Island plus a selection of Britten and Berkeley settings of Auden, Britten folk-song arrangements and Tippett's Songs for Ariel. Neither performer gave a hint that their partnership in this programme was a very recent one, and Tritschler displayed an impressive command of the vast quantity of words in the songs.

Auden's poetry makes rather wordy song lyrics and both the way Britten and Berkeley set the text emphasised this quality. After all, Britten in the 1930's wrote cabaret songs with Auden and his more serious songs from that period also have a sense of being words and music. I have to confess that I have not always 'got' Auden's poetry; I appreciate it for its sounds, the way he plays with assonance and consonance and makes imaginative combinations. But I worry about the sense underneath. For instance, on Monday neither my companion nor I were entirely certain what 'To lie flat on the back with the knees flexed' was actually about. The Hyperion recording describes the poem as satirical, but I could read it entirely seriously picturing two schoolboys, or young men with one far more sexually interested than the other intends. And perhaps it is the very uncertainly which attracts composers, you can read a lot into the lines and between the lines, allowing space for the music.

Robin Tritschler and Gary Matthewman's first group consisted of six songs to texts by WH Auden, written in the period 1936/37 by Britten and Lennox Berkeley; written separately and not intended as a group but working well together, with Auden's texts as well as a common theme of love and desire (something which seemed to thread its way through much of the programme). As a performer, Robin Tritschler is a great story teller, each song becomes a little narrative. Not in the operatic sense, but very much in the sense of someone confiding something fascinating and involving. Each song was given its own particular character, and clearly words really mean something to him. Not only was his diction admirably clear, but there was a sense of the primacy of the words in the mix, admirably combined with a lovely sense of line.

Britten's To lie flat on the back started out rather light and characterful, but then after a rather recitative-like passage we passed to real drama and a dying fall. Fish in unruffled lakes (Britten) started with a lovely evocation of water from Gary Matthewman with Tritschler making the wordy vocal line nicely fluid. There was drama along the way, but the end returned to the beginning, the fish still unruffled Lennox Berkeley's Night covers up the rigid land was low with lush harmonies and developed into something strong and expressive, quite a powerful piece. Britten's Under the abject willow was a perky folk-ish tune to which Britten gave a different treatment in each verse with a fast and furious final one, complete with throw away end. Berkeley's Lay your sleeping head was slow and rather wordy, but both performers gave a lovely sense of the song gradually unfolding with inexorable progress to a really intense climax. The last in the group was Britten's When you're feeling like expressing your affection, a very cabaret song about using the telephone, and a complete delight.

Britten's folk-song settings started out as recital items for him and Peter Pears to perform. Part of their interest, and charm, is the way that Britten shamelessly re-invents the songs by partnering the standard vocal line with some striking piano material that often transcends the word accompaniment. The miller of Dee certainly wasn't jolly at all, but slightly disturbing in fact and both Tritschler and Matthewman gave us a sense of telling a real story. The ash grove is a song where less is more, and both performers knew this admirably, a highly communicative performance with the piano giving a rather disturbing commentary in the final song.  The Salley Gardens was beautifully understated with a sense of fine control of line. The bonny Earl o'Moray does not crop up in recitals as often as I would like, and Tritschler and Matthewman gave a strong and darkly intense performance. Finally The foggy foggy dew. I have always regretted that Britten missed out the saucier verses in the song, but Tritschler admirably conveyed what was missing with a delightful sense of wit and sly charm.

Michael Tippett's Songs for Ariel (written in 1962) took us to a rather different place, but still with a sense of the text being foremost. Come unto these yellow sands had a sprinkling of magic in the piano and lovely seductive tone from Tritschler. Full fathom five was calm and deeply mysterious, whilst Where the bee sucks was full of character and charm.

Finally Britten's 1937 song cycle On this Island, setting WH Auden. Let the florid music praise! was full of Purcellian flourishes with a lovely florid finish to the first verse. Now the leaves are falling fast (which, I have subsequently read, refers to the last hours of life) had wonderful urgency in voice and piano with the final verse (after the important line 'And the angel will not come') moving to a different world. Seascape was a lovely evocation of just that, highly descriptive in word and music. Nocturne was quietly hypnotic with beautifully spun lines and a darkly mysterious final verse. Finally the dazzling verbal dexterity of As it is, plenty. Evidently Auden's words are meant to be biting satire, but Britten's setting gives it all a rather popular feel, perhaps viewing the bourgeois life with more wry affection.

Both performers gave a performance was fully engaged, with many moments of sheer beauty alongside all those words, and no sense of the last minute preparations necessary. We were even treated to an encore, a short but delightful song, Fishing, by Britten's only pupil, Arthur Oldham (whom I just about remember as the chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus).

The recital is available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer.

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