Friday 11 November 2016

All Blood Runs Red: London Song Festival explores composers and poets from World War One

James Newby
James Newby
All Blood Runs Red, George Butterworth, FS Kelly, Cecil Coles. William Denis Brown, Rudi Stephan, Ernst Kunsemüller and Ronald Corp; James Newby, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 10 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An intense evocation of World War One using poets and composers from both sides.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Marta Fontanals-Simmons
For the opening concert of this year's London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church on 10 November 2016, artistic director Nigel Foster created a sequence of words and music, All Blood Runs Red, which explored the music and poetry produced by artists from both sides of the conflict in World War One. So there were songs by British composers George Butterworth, FS Kelly, Cecil Coles and William Denis Brown and by German composers Rudi Stephan and Ernst Kunsemüller, as well as Ronald Corp's settings of German poets from World War One. The performers were mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons and baritone James Newby, accompanied by Nigel Foster at the piano, with Jack McCann as speaker. Texts included English and German writers, including Charles Sorley, Alfred Lichtenstein, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, Gerrit Engelke, and August Stramm.

The programme played continuously (with an interval) interleaving text and songs, sometimes overlaying text with music, in a narrative which went from signing up, through scenes of battle, to the final end. James Newby sang all the songs from memory, and Marta Fontanals-Simmons despite stepping in to the programme at five days notice, rather impressively sang most of them from memory. The result was a very affecting and thought provoking programme.

James Newby displayed an impressively smooth fluid baritone in George Butterworth's On the Idle Hill of Summer. Throughout the programme he showed a lovely attention to the words, combining this with resonant tone in affecting manner. On the Idle Hill of Summer started intent and interior before opening up in a passionate manner. Marta Fontanals-Simmons used her rich, well produced mezzo-soprano to fine effect in In Nachbars Garten by Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), who was killed by a sniper on the Galician Front in the Ukraine. Though the song was lyrical, there were interesting harmonic byways, and a certain expressionist cast to the music.

Newby sang the first of Ronald Corp's songs, Der Aufbruch setting Ernst Stadler (1883-1914). The vocal line used a sort of continuous arioso to push the words forward, accompanied by a piano part which hinted at other musical styles. Then Fontanals-Simmons sang Seufzer der Sehnsucht by Ernst Kunsemüller (1885-1918), a short but striking song with an intense vocal line and a complex harmonic web in the piano.

There were hints of the neo-baroque in the florid moments of Cyril Rootham's Siegfried Sassoon setting, Everyone Sang (sung by James Newby), whilst FS Kelly's Shelly setting Music When Soft Voices Die (sung by Marta Fontanals-Simmons) was beautifully melancholy. Newby was controlled and intense in Butterworth's With Rue My Heart is Laden, and Fontanals-Simmons brought a big romantic feel to Cecil Coles' Tis Love That Murmurs (setting Thomas Moore).

Newby was very moving in Gurney's In Flanders, his lucid baritone and attention to the words really mining the intensity of music and words. Newby was a very affecting performing, and at times seemed almost about to burst into tears. Fontanals-Simmons made Rudi Stephan's intense and complex Heimat into something serious yet uneasy, and the first half concluded with Newby's striking account of Gurney's E'en such is Time, setting Walter Raleigh, interleaved with readings of Charles Sorley's Failure.

The second half opened with Newby's performance of Ronald Corp's Die Schlacht bei Saarburg setting Alfred Lichtenstein (1889-1914), a vividly descriptive recitative evoking the Battle of Saarburg. It was then Fontanals-Simmons turn to sing Gurney, his Sappho setting Lonely Night, thoughtful and complex and not typical Gurney.

The next sequence of songs were all James Newby's. Rudi Stephan's Am Abend started chorale-like and built to a real climax, Ronald Corp's setting of Gerrit Engelke, An den Tod, was a very direct arioso with a wandering piano part, and Gurney's Lights Out benefited from Newby's great beauty of line, a quiet yet mesmerising performance.

Fontanals-Simmons sang Cecil Coles' Elegy (setting Thomas Moore), a song of which I thought there was something of the parlour about it but which Fontanals-Simmons made really convincing. Then she sang the final Rudi Stephan song, Der Hohelied der Nacht, a rather haunting and atmospheric piece which developed into something really intense and dramatic. Stephan was a real discovery for me, and I look forward to hearing more of his songs. Finally the two singers joined together for William Dennis Brown's The Isle of Lost Dreams, and elegant, melancholy and wistful end to a very thoughtful programme.

Both singers brought real concentration and intensity to the programme, given in quasi dramatic manner, with Jack McCann's spoken texts combining with the music to create real atmosphere, all presided over in masterly manner by Nigel Foster at the piano.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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  • Tennstedt conducts Wagner: Die Walküre live from London Philharmonic Orchestra - Cd review
  • Russian rarities: Stravinsky's Mavra and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta - Opera review
  • From Tom and Jerry to Madama Butterfly I chat to conductor John Wilson - Interview
  • Sisters are doing it for themselves: Recent recordings of girls choirs - CD review
  • Climax worth waiting for: Simone Piazzola at Rosenblatt Recitals - concert review
  • As the composer intended: Stravinsky's Mass from Edinburgh - CD review
  • Wonderful record of a treasured performer: Alexandra Dariescu in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 - CD review
  • Admirable introduction: The Sixteen explores Edmund Rubbra's sacred music - CD review
  • A sort-of opera which fails to ignite: And London Burned at Temple Church - Opera review
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