Monday 27 November 2017

A Housman Dichterliebe: Gareth Brynmor John, Nigel Foster & Gabriel Woolf

Gareth Brynmor John
Gareth Brynmor John
Schumann Dichterliebe, A.E.Housemann; Gareth Brynmor John, Nigel Foster, Gabriel Woolf; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 24 2017 Star rating: 4.5
A generously lyrical account of Schumann's great song-cycle interleaved with Housman poems

The London Song Festival continued its theme of Circles, Cycles and Revolutions at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Friday 24 November with Robert Schumann's great song cycle Dichterliebe setting poems by Heinrich Heine. Baritone Gareth Brynmor John and pianist Nigel Foster performed Schumann's song cycle alongside the four Heine settings which were dropped from the cycle (either by Schumann or his publisher), and three Heine settings from Schumann's Myrthen. Under the title of A Housman Dichterliebe, the songs were interleaved with readings, as actor Gabriel Woolf read from A.E. Housman's late poetry (More Poems, Late Poems and Additional Poems).

Schumann's Dichterliebe sets sixteen poems by Heinrich Heine selected from a far longer sequence about a young knight's adventures in love. There is little knightly in Schumann's selection, what we get is a young man's journey through the pains of love and though the Schumann wrote the cycle during his wonder year of 1840, when he finally got to marry his beloved Clara, Dichterliebe reflects the period 1835 to 1836 when the two became estranged and eventually reconciled. And it is these themes which remarkably chime with Houseman's poetry. His late poetry can be more explicitly homo-erotic but there is still something contained and at a distance about Houseman's writing, he writes about his feeling but at one remove, yet the concerns are the same as in the Heine poems.

Gabriel Woolf read poems between some of the songs, and the effect was rather as if the older poet was addressing the younger, and this was particularly true as Gareth Brynmor John remained fully present when not singing, alert to what Woolf was saying.
I have to confess that occasionally I missed having the poems printed, though Woolf's diction and delivery were masterly there is sometimes a complexity to Houseman's syntax and thought processes which requires a bit of contemplation of the written word.

Gareth Brynmor John gave us a wonderfully generous and lyrical account of this most lyrical of song cycles. Brynmor John has a powerful, resonant voice which has great tonal beauty and he used this constantly to great effect in Schumann's lovely melodies. But Brynmor John did not coast along, his words were fully formed and finely enunciated, you did not need the printed German and he certainly made them count. More than that, the songs were taken to heart and whilst there was nothing operatic about Brynmor John's performance, except perhaps the sheer amplitude of his voice, he clearly identified with the poet and gave us a sense of the young man's puzzled journey through the complexities of love.

The poet's emotional complexities varied from the fast and vivid 'Die Rose, die Lilie' through the lyrically flowing 'Ich will meine Seele' and darkly sonorous 'Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome' to 'Ich grolle nicht' with its fabulously expansive line and telling words. By the time we reached 'Das is ein 
Flöten und Geigen we had a clear sense of the young man's disturbed state of mind, with the lighter piano part creating a sort of commentary. We reached real bleakness in 'Ich habe'im Traum geweinet' but the previous song 'Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen' had captured something mystical too. 'Aus alten Märchen' moved from a light narrative to grow intensity to reach real bitterness, and there was a real emotional undertow to the final song with its bitter end, with only the magical postlude providing release.

The four songs which were omitted from DictherliebeDein Angesicht Op 127 No.2, es leuchteet meine Liebe Op.127 No. 3, Lehn' deine Wang' Op.142 No.2 and Mein Wagen rollet Langsam Op.142 No.4 were perhaps not up to the same standard of concentrated intensity as the cycle, but it was fascinating to hear them and speculate what the longer version might be like. Gareth Brynmor John and Nigel Foster gave each a strongly characterised performance, from the lyrical first song, through the story telling second one, to the vivid third song. The fourth seemed curiously unresolved, relying again on a substantial postlude.

The three Heine settings from Myrthen, 'Die Lotosblume', 'Was will die einsame Träne' and 'Du bist wie eine Blume' formed a wonderfully lyrical coda, ending with an account of 'Du bist wie eine Blume' notable for Gareth Brynmor John's beauty of line and tone.

The London English Song Festival continued on Friday 1 December 2017 with Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin sung by tenor James Way.

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