Tuesday 12 April 2016

Johnny Herford and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall

Johnny Herford - photo Maximilian Van London
Johnny Herford
photo Maximilian Van London
Schumann, Judith Weir, Ravel; Johnny Herford, James Baillieu; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 10 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting composers but all with a sense of having a story to tell

For their Sunday afternoon concert (10 April 2016) at the Wigmore Hall, baritone Johnny Herford and pianist James Baillieu combined song cycles by Schumann and Ravel with a selection of songs by Judith Weir, the Master of the Queen's Music. They opened with Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 24 and closed with Ravel's Histoires Naturelles and in between we heard Ständchen, Blackbirds and Thrushes, On Buying a Horse and three songs from Songs from the Exotic by Judith Weir.

If there was a thread linking the songs it was perhaps storytelling. Johnny Herford seemed a natural storyteller on stage using both his voice, his face and his body to involve us in a way which was completely engaging yet never over the top or too operatic. Whilst the Ravel songs, setting prose poems by Jules Renard, seemed the most story like Judith Weir's songs all had an intriguing element of the folk tale about their texts especially in the way that story was told in an indirect and allusive manner, often ending mid-air. Schumann's song cycle, the first that he called Liederkreis, is a group of songs all by Heine and though there was no explicit narrative arc, Johnny Herford made each one seem part of an emotionally dramatic whole.

James Baillieu - photo  Kaupo Kikkas
James Baillieu - photo  Kaupo Kikkas
The Schumann cycle opened with 'Morgens steh'ich auf und frage' (Every morning I wake and ask) which Johnny Herford and James Baillieu made a rather perky, folk-ish piece with Herford making the vocal line really count, and Baillieu giving us the first of a number of lovely postludes (something of a Schumann speciality). 'Es treibt mich hin' (I'm driven this way) was vividly characterised, with Herford singing with fine even tone. 'Ich wandelte under den Bäumen' (I wandered among the trees) had a bleak calmness to it, with a little bit of magic when the poet mentions 'old dreams' and lovely bird moments in the second verse. Herford has a strong natural presence on stage and whilst each song was highly characterised this never meant compromising musical values, throughout there was a lovely evenness and ease to Herford's voice.

'Lieb liebchen, leg's Händchen aufs Herze mein' (Lay your and on my heart, my love) was strange and short, but highly vivid. 'Schone Wiege meiner Leiden' (Lovely cradle of sorrows) was sung with passionate melancholy and a sense of lovely long phrases and a fine long postlude crowning it. 'Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann' (Wait, o wait, wild sailor) was vigorous and vivid from both Herford and Baillieu, with a strong sense of narrative.

'Berg' und Burgen schau'n herunter' (Mountains and castles look down) had a lovely calmness, with strong musical values. 'Anfangs wollt'ich fast verzagen' (A first I almost lost heart) was short, yet deeply felt and there was a feeling of open-hearted frankness to the final song 'Mit Myrten und Rosen' (With myrtles and roses).

Judith Weir's Ständchen was written in 1997 for the Schubert bicentenary and sets a text which Schubert also set. Weir's version combined a charming melody with a transparent and magical piano texture full of references to the nightingales from the text. Both performers brought out the poet's real sense of intoxication as he addresses his beloved. Blackbirds and Thrushes was written in 2008 for The NMC Songbook a collection of 97 songs by contemporary composes. The text is taken from a folk-song and though there was folk-ish hints to Weir's vocal line her treatment of it, particularly in the way the piano accompanied developed and commented on the material, was very striking, creating a real feeling of darker complexities beneath. On buying a horse written in 1991 was a setting of wittily aphoristic anonymous text which Weir treated imaginatively by repeating the text and each time stripping it down so that last time it was just a list of essential words as if the singer was trying to help himself remember. The piano part was strikingly complex, complemented by Herford's highly communicative and witty performance.

Judith Weir's Songs from the Exotic were written in 1987 and set texts from various vernacular traditions. 'Sevdalino, my little one' uses a rather epigraphic Serbian folk-song and Weir's vocal line mirrored the strangeness of the text. She surrounded it with a halo of sound in the piano. Another Serbian text 'In the lovely village of Nevensinje' again had strangely epigraphic quality, finishing almost mid-story. There was a slightly operatic character to the music with the first verse intoned, recitative-like but once the drama started Herford was very vivid in his characterisation and the dark intensity he brought to the song. Finally a Spanish song, 'The Romance of Count Arnaldos' which was performed with a delightful lightness, sense of Spanish character and not a little wit.

Ravel's Histoires Naturelles caused something of a stir at their first performance in 1907. Ravel had set the texts naturalistically, often omitting the final 'e' which is silent when speaking but sounded in sung French. Evidently, to the Parisian audience the results sounded vulgar but to our modern-day ears there is a freshness and fluid storytelling aspect to the songs. 'Le paon' (The Peacock) started with a subtle grandness in the piano, with Herford almost confiding the tale to us with a nicely casual sense of 'I want to tell you a story'. His French has a fine fluidity and ease to it which is essential in these pieces. And the peacock's cries of 'Leon' were both vivid and funny, especially for the deadpan way Herford performed them. James Baillieu gave us some delicate magic in the piano for 'Le grillon' (The cricket). Again Herford's natural and deadpan delivery made the song very funny.

For 'Le cygne' (The swan) we had delicate ripples in the piano combined with a nice smoothness to the vocal line, full of colours and textures. The piano in 'Le martin-pecher' (The kingfisher) was spare, with just enough to give the right colour and character. Herford spun out the story beautifully with a real naturalness. Baillieu's piano accompaniment in 'La pintade' (The guinea-fowl) was wonderfully angry, with hints of earlier hen pieces, and a similar vividness to Herford's performance. Throughout the set you almost forgot you were listening to a song cycle and felt entranced simply by the story telling.

We were treated to a delightful encore, Benjamin Britten's arrangement of the French folk-song La belle est au jardin d'amour.
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