Sunday 17 July 2016

Nocturnal Variations - Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton

Nocturnal Variations - Ruby Hughes - Champs Hill Records
Schubert, Berg, Mahler, Britten; Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton; Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 06 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Songs exploring the night in highly evocative performances

We seem to be having a rash of themed recitals at the moment. This new disc Nocturnal Variations from soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Joseph Middleton on Champs Hill Records, gives us night-themed songs by Schubert, Mahler, Berg and Britten, with Schubert's Nachtstück, Romanze, Abendstern, Die Sterne and Im Abendtrot, Mahler's Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and Urlicht (both from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) and Um Mitternacht (from Rückert Lieder, Berg's Vier Gesänge, Britten's Evening and Night (from This way to the Tomb), Um Mitternacht, and At the mid hour of night.

In many ways this is a traditionally constructed recital, with a clear sequence from Schubert through Mahler to Berg, and ending with a group (mainly) in the singer's own language. It just happens that the theme of the songs dwells mainly on the night, a theme which brings great variety whether it be drama, sunsets, contemplation, dreams or even the supernatural.

Ruby Hughes
Ruby Hughes
Schubert's Nachtstück starts with a sombre, serious piano prelude, then Ruby Hughes sings in a highly intimate manner with fine attention to the words. The song develops a lovely sense of flow, and Hughes finishes with her voice on a thread. Romanze (not strictly a lied but a song from Schubert's incidental music to Rosamunde) is sung with a delicate yet elegant sense of line. Abendstern is quietly thoughtful with a feeling of fragility when she fines the tone down. Die Sterne has Hughes' lyric line enhanced by Middleton's rhythmic accompaniment, creating a slight sense of suppressed excitement. Finally Im Abendrot starts with another lovely piano prelude, then Hughes sings in an intimate and relaxed manner.

Beautifully performed as these songs are, I was aware of a great particularity in the style of performance. Hughes often thins her voice down to a slender thread, giving intimate and thoughtful performances. Whilst speeds are not overly slow, there is a great sense of having all the time in the world.
Hughes and Middleton bring similar qualities to the Mahler songs. Hughes does not have the sort of refulgent voice we often associate with this songs, and she makes great virtue of her clarity and sense of line, as well as giving the songs a quietly contemplative and intimate feel. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen is sung almost to herself, but with a lovely spun line and clarity of tone. The relaxed feel gives a sense of all the time in the world. Um Mitternacht is so quiet it is barely there, a piece of brilliant technical skill which Hughes and Middleton use to convey real intensity, and reaching real radiance at the climax. Urlicht is again barely there, with some moments of lovely transparency.

Berg's Vier Gesänge, Op.2 are early works and the influence of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg can be felt as the songs really push tonality to the limits so that in the last song Warum di Lüfte it breaks down altogether. But within this Berg creates a wonderfully lyrical expressive vocal line, even though highly expressionist. Hughes brings a lovely clarity and lyrical line to these songs, singing with pin sharp accuracy combined with a glowing radiance. Schlafen, Schlafen, nichts, als Schlafen his highly evocative, with transparent yet complex harmony. Schlafend trägt man mich has a richly complex piano accompaniment, and Hughes gives a lovely lyric sense to the tricky vocal line, with some beautifully floated moments. Nun ich der Riesen Stärksten überwand is a tiny piece, but very evocative with an amazing piano part. Finally Warum die Lüfte where Hughes and Middleton make the free atonality of the piece seem natural. Even here Berg introduces a nightingale in the piano. After moments of real drama, they conclusion is fabulously quiet.

Britten wrote songs and incidental music for The Way to the Tomb in 1944. It was play by Ronald Duncan who would write the libretto to The Rape of Lucretia. The songs were written for voice and harp, and Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton sing two of them Evening and Night. Evening has a highly atmospheric piano part over which Hughes sings a quietly sustained lyric line, whilst Night is quietly evocative At first the songs do not sound like Britten, but as you listen you discern telling details. Britten's setting of Um mitternacht was written in 1959/60 and starts with a lovely transparency of texture. Finally a poised account of At the mid hour of night from volume four of Britten's folk-song settings, taking their texts from Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies.

This is a lovely disc, with Hughes and Middleton combining great technical skill with a highly evocative sense of the music. Hughes brings out a great particularity in the songs, with her use of quietly intimate tone and a sense of contemplation. This makes the Schubert and Mahler striking yet distinctive, but the Berg are worth the disc alone.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Nachtstück
Franz Schubert - Romanze
Franz Schubert - Abendstern
Franz Schubert - Die Sterne
Franz Schubert - Im Abendtrot Gustav Mahler (1880-1911) - Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Gustav Mahler - Um Mitternacht
Gustav Mahler - Urlicht
Alban Berg (1885-1935)- Vier Gesänge, Op.2
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Evening (from This way to the Tomb)
Benjamin Britten - Night (from This way to the Tomb)
Benjamin Britten - Um Mitternacht
Benjamin Britten - At the mid hour of night
Ruby Hughes (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Recorded 1-4 June 2014 in the Music Room, Champs Hill
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