Saturday 18 November 2017

Distant Love: Ashley Riches & Anna Huntley in Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Duparc & more

Ashley Riches (Photo Debbie Scanlon)
Ashley Riches (Photo Debbie Scanlon)
Beethoven, Mahler, Poulenc, Schubert, Schuman, Duparc, Berlioz, Amy Woodforde-Finden, Frank Bridge, Brahms, Albert Roussel, Rogers & Hammerstein; Anna Huntley, Ashley Riches, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte at the centre of an imaginative programme themed on Distant Love

The London Song Festival's Circles, Cycles and Revolutions continued on Friday 17 November 2017 at Hinde Street Methodist Church with Distant Love. Mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley, baritone Ashley Riches and pianist Nigel Foster performed a programme which had Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte at its centre, surrounded by songs on the themes of distant love by Mahler, Poulenc, Schubert, Schumann, Duparc, Berlioz, Amy Woodforde-Finden, Frank Bridge, Brahms, Albert Roussel and Rogers & Hammerstein. The songs were interspersed with readings from the actress Sarah Berger with authors ranging from Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte to Oscar Wilde to Hemingway and Pablo Neruda.

Anna Huntley (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Anna Huntley (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
The programme was divided into sections, To War, Messages to the Beloved, Parted by War, Parting at Homecoming (The end of the Holiday Romance), The Distant Beloved, Desolation, This nearly was mine!, with the readings and songs flowing continuously. Berger's readings were sometimes simply short and aphoristic, sometimes trenchant and sometimes poignant. In Desolation, readings from Otomo no Yakamochi, Vera Brittain and Pablo Neruda created some profoundly poignant moments, whilst readings from Rose Macauley and Nora Bamford in the Parted by War section provided some intriguingly different female points of view, and having words by Oscar Wilde and by Wendy Cope ensured an element of trenchant humour whilst still being profoundly relevant.

We started with Mahler's Aus! Aus! from Des Knaben Wunderhorn sung as a duet with Ashley Riches and Anna Huntley beautifully capturing the two very different points of view, he all vibrant swagger and she elegantly melancholy. Next Anna Huntley sang one of Francis Poulenc's harmonisations of Polish folk melodies, Wianak from Huit Chansons Polonaises. Nigel Foster gave us Poulenc's elegantly Chopin-esque piano accompaniment whilst Huntley articulated the elegant longing in the song, and sang it in Polish too. Huntley was a last minute replacement for Soraya Mafi, but throughout the evening you could hardly detect that Huntley had jumped in at a couple of weeks notice. Understandably Huntley sang from music, whereas Ashley Riches mostly sang from memory, but Huntley is a highly communicative singer and we were delightfully engaged.
Ashley Riches then sang Schubert's Liebesbotschaft the first of three songs in the evening from Schubert's Schwanengesang, the song cycle assembled by his publisher at the end of Schubert's life. Riches sang the song in a quietly intimate way, hinting at the poet's youthful enthusiasm and projecting the words wonderfully.  Huntley then gave us Schumann's Aufträge. This is relatively late Schumann, from 1850, with a flowing piano bubbling along, part reflecting the words, and Huntley mirrored this with her delightfully impulsive performance.  Riches then sang Schubert's Die Taubenpost, the final song from Schwanengesang. Here he was quite understated yet still very communicative, making the song very touching. Having heard Riches in two songs from the cycle made me keen to hear him in a complete Schwanengesang.

Parted by War started with Berlioz' L'Absence from Anna Huntley and Nigel Foster. The song comes from Berlioz' cycle Les Nuits d'Ete, and seemed to fit Huntley's voice perfectly. She sang with a nicely classical sense of line but with the right vibrancy of tone in her voice, and with just piano accompaniment made the song finely intimate. Can we hear the rest please?  Riches then gave us the final song from Schubert's Schwanengesang, Krieger's Ahnung. Riches started from where he was sitting, as if he really had dozed off and began with deep dark, deeply felt tones. Riches is a very fine communicative lieder singer, giving colouring the text and really drawing you. Throughout his performance Huntley stood paying close attention, and at the end launched into Duparc's Aux Pays ou se fait la Guerre, thus making a rather moving grouping. Following on from her Berlioz, Huntley's account of the Duparc really suggested that French song suits her voice well. Aux Pays ou se fait la Guerre was full of drama, yet finely phrased and with the words given due prominence, leading to the hauntingly sad end.

The final section in the first half was Parting at Homecoming (The end of the Holiday Romance), two lighter songs perhaps but no less moving. Huntley was delightful in Georges Bizet's Adieux de l'Hotesse Arabe, seductive and elegant you really thought she was about to start dancing! And Ashley Riches and Nigel Foster made Amy Woodforde-Finden's Kashmiri Song from Four Indian Love Lyrics far more subtle than you might have thought it would be.

Riches and Foster opened the second half with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, generally regarded as the first song cycle and rather unusually it is through-composed each song flowing into the next. The opening song was beautifully sung, gently emotive yet highly communicative, moving on to a quietly intent second song with moment of vigour. The third was not so much lighter, as vividly characterful, and his engaging enthusiasm in the fourth was partnered with some lovely caressing of the phrases. The fifth song was lightly engaging, with some delightful rustic effects in the piano, and in the final song, where Beethoven bring back the music of the opening song, Riches and Foster were touchingly expressive, bringing out the complex emotions of the piece.

Frank Bridge's richly expressive harmonies opened Come to me in my Dreams, his setting of Matthew Arnold, and Anna Huntley complemented this with lovely expressive tone, and she continued with a beautifully shaped and deeply felt account of Brahms' An eine Aolsharfe.

Ashley Riches brought a touching, wry humour to Finzi's Hardy setting, To Lizbie Brown, a lovely performance which was wonderfully poignant. The mood continued with Huntley and Foster's account of Roussel's Reponse d'une Epouse Sage which combined hints of the exotic in the harmony with a certain expressive distance in the song, and Huntley made the text beautifully inflected. Finally the two singers came together to perform This nearly was mine from Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, a lovely performance which brought out all the subtlety of the song.

We were treated to an encore, and initially it was guess the song from the verse. I failed utterly to recognise Noel Coward's Someday I'll find you, a lovely end to an engaging and imaginative concert.

The London Song Festival continues this afternoon (18 November 2017) with Simon Wallfisch and Nigel Foster in Schubert's Winterreise interspersed with readings from Derek Jarman's diary.

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