Tuesday 12 July 2016

A young Marschallin in the making: Gemma Lois Summerfield in recital

Gemma Lois Summerfield
Gemma Lois Summerfield
Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss;
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 9 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An attractive programme with some moments of great beauty from this young artist

2015 Kathleen Ferrier Award winner Gemma Lois Summerfield has popped up a couple of times on this blog. Ruth caught her January 2016 recital with Simon Lepper at St John's Smith Square (see Ruth's review), and I heard her as Ginevra in the Royal College of Music's production of Handel's Ariodante (see my review).

At the Buxton Festival on 9 July 2016 I caught up with Gemma Lois Summerfield in a revised version of her January 2016 recital, accompanied by Sebastian Wybrew in songs by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn plus Debussy's Ariettes oubliées and Richard Strauss's Four Lieder Op.27.

The Pavilion Arts Centre is not an ideal recital venue, the acoustics are perhaps a little dry and the location meant that Gemma Lois Summerfield and Sebastian Wybrew's recital had competition from a band playing in the Pavilion Gardens as part of the Buxton Carnival. Though we were given free leaflets containing the translations of the song texts, the lights in the auditorium were turned down so low that reading was impossible.

Looking delightfully summery despite the weather, Gemma Lois Summerfield displayed an attractive stage persona and in some of the songs really communicated with her audience. However, in others she had a tendency to hide behind her music. In the more strophic Mendelssohn songs, though her diction was excellent, we wanted a greater variety of colours in her vibrant lyric line. That said, a persistent catch in her voice seemed to indicate that things were not quite 100%. She overcame this brilliantly but you felt it could not help but create a certain tension.

We opened with a substantial group of songs (too many?) by Felix Mendelssohn and by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.
Neue Liebe had a great sense of fairies in the piano and Summerfield impressed with her command of language but I wanted more variety of tone, though the atmosphere in the last verse darkened finely. Der Liebe schreibt showed of her vibrant lyric voice, though she overused vibrato somewhat for my taste. Winterlied had some nice characterisation, but I felt her voice a little too present for the evocative material, though she fined down the tone at the end.

Fanny Mendelssohn's Die Mainacht had a nice sense of lyric beauty albeit a trifle generalised. Felix Mendelssohn's Suleika was sung with a vibrant lyric line, though Summerfield could have been a bit more communicative and varied the verses more. The last song of the group, Hexenlied really showed what Summerfield could do. Sung vividly, with words spat out and full of colour, you wished that some of these virtues had been brought to the more lyric songs.

Debussy's Verlaine settings, Ariettes oubliées are a different proposition. At times these felt a little too studied, too much sung to the music. It is easy for me to write that Summerfield should relax and communicate with the audience more, but this was true, though there we some lovely things in the performance too. C'est l'extase langoureuse started with gorgeous impressionism in the piano and Summerfield sang with fluid line and lovely flexibility. Here and elsewhere I found her French les vividly idiomatic than her German. Il pleure dans mon Coeur had a lovely delicacy in both voice and piano, though to be ideal I would have wished her voice had been more veiled, less present. L'ombre des arbres was hauntingly dark, rising to a string climax, with some lovely fine grained top notes. Chevaux de bois had really vivacious sense, only occasionally lacking a real smile in the voice. Green was atmospheric with a fluid line, and Spleen was similarly impressive with a lovely atmosphere.

Before the four Richard Strauss songs Summerfield gave a short spoken introduction and I wished she had introduced more of the songs this way. Richard Strauss's songs were a wedding present to his wife and comprise some of his best known songs. Ruhe meine Seelestarted with dark drama in the piano, complemented by Summerfield's quiet intense voice There was a nice ease at the top and a great sense of the words. Cäcilie was really sung to us, showing how communicative she can really be, a performance full of engaging enthusiasm and passion. Heimliche Aufforderung was similarly impressive and charming too. At climaxes her voice had a lovely strength to the tone, not hard but vibrant; not so much Sophie as a young Marschallin in the making.

This perhaps is the key to Gemma Lois Summerfield's voice, she is that tricky thing a young dramatic soprano, a voice in transition looking for a repertoire. This recital was full of positives as well as items for comment and I look forward to hearing how she develops.

The last song in the printed programme was Strauss's Morgen, sung with a lovely ease, flexibility and radiance. The quiet moments at 'Stumm' were simply mesmerising. As an encore we were treated to Roger Quilter's Music when soft voices die combining superb diction with a beautifully poised performance. More please!

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