Sunday 18 February 2018

Motherhood and memory: Helen Grime's Bright Travellers at the Wigmore Hall

Helen Grime
Helen Grime
Robert Schumann, Helen Grime, Mahler, Ives, Britten; Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 15 2018
Star rating: 4.0

Ravishing textures from Helen Grime's new song cycle in a programme themed on mother-hood

What female composers there were in the 19th century tended to operate within the confines of the male expectations of society at the time, so that Fanny Mendelssohn's works were published as her brother's and Clara Schumann was a pianist, wife and mother before she was a composer. All this means that we have very little music on motherhood and parenthood from a 19th century woman's point of view. The prime example still remains a male production, Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben, where the limitations of Adelbert von Chamisso's texts are to a certain extent transcended by Schumann's music.

So for a concert themed around motherhood and parenthood given at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 15 February 2018 by soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Joseph Middleton, as part of the hall's Seven Ages festival, the centrepiece was Helen Grime's new song cycle Bright Travellers, a welcome setting by a female composer of poems by Fiona Benson about the joys and pains of motherhood, from the first scan to registering the child's birth.

Fiona Benson
Fiona Benson
Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton complemented Grime's new piece with Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. At least Robert Schumann did, to a certain extent, support his wife's compositional activity whereas Mahler actively prevented his wife, Alma, from pursuing her career. By contrast to Adelbert von Chamisso's texts, which commentators decry as 'the impersonation of a woman by male culture', at least Friedrich Ruckert's texts as set by Mahler were the fruits of agonised personal experience.

Sensibly Hughes and Middleton had divided the programme into a German and an English half, performing Charles Ives songs and Benjamin Britten folk songs alongside the Grimes. Whilst these provided an element of contrast, it was a shame we could not get a 20th century woman's voice.

Helen Grime's Bright Travellers sets five poems by Fiona Benson about the experience of motherhood. The poems move from the first scan, Soundings, to considerations of the new being within, Brew, the reaction of others to the baby, Visitations, the baby's reactions to feeding, Milk Fever and a visit to the registrar, Council Offices. I can understand why Grime was attracted to the poems, they have a conciseness and directness which speak of personal experience. Motherhood is not cast in a rosy glow. Benson's voice is often sharp and uneasy, prey to uneasy thoughts about foetuses aborting or other women's still births, and moments of disturbed sleep. How to set such strong texts to music?

Grime's songs are simply ravishing in terms of the sounds conjured, and I have nothing but admiration for the way Joseph Middleton conjured such translucent sounds from the elaborate piano parts. In each song, Grime paired a complex web of piano sound (it evoked the way Michael Tippett wrote for the instrument) with a more lyrical vocal line threading its way through. The results were not only lovely, particularly as Ruby Hughes sang the not uncomplex and angular vocal lines with such liquid beauty, but had a transcendent feeling. This culminated in the powerful final song when the visit to the registrar evokes thoughts of other mothers, whose children are born dead, and the final two verses, a haunting lullaby, were sung unaccompanied creating a profoundly disturbing ending.

But there is a sharpness to Benson's verses, after all mother-hood is not an altogether easy business, and this sharpness seemed to be lacking somewhat in the songs. Ruby Hughes prized beauty of line over diction so that, though her tone was liquid, the words did not come over well. Perhaps if the text had had greater definition, it might have counted for more. As it was, I missed the prickliness, anxiety and anger which was present in Fiona Benson's voice.

Hughes and Middleton opened the recital with Frauenliebe und -leben preceded by a 'Traumerei' from Schumann's Kinderscenen. Hughes sang the cycle in a highly intimate manner, her voice frequently no louder than necessary, giving us a sense of the woman confiding in someone. For much of the time, Hughes sang with a fluidity which flowed like speech, prizing the text.  The result was often inward and captured a very personal response to the songs, culminating in the plangent intensity of the final song, with its magical postlude which Middleton started like something from elsewhere.

Mahler's Kindertoten Lieder are often sung by more expansive voice, creating an amplitude in the vocal line which seems to upholster things against the extremes of the emotions expressed. Here Hughes and Middleton created something very inward, intense and profoundly personal. It was a very mobile performance, flitting from emotion to emotion - the sun still shines even over the terrible events which have happened.

Charles Ives' songs are curious things, each a striking gem but always slightly aslant from the world, whether it be the mesmeric repetition of the piano in Serenity, the magical evocation of landscape in The Housatonic at Stockbridge, the delightful creation of memorable moments in Memories, and finally Songs my mother taught me with its combination of popular song and Ivesian spikiness.

We finished with a group of Britten folksongs, Ca' the yowes, At the mid hour of the night, Come you not from Newcastle?  and O Waly Waly?, all evocatively performed.

We were treated to a single encore, Robert Schumann's Nachtlied.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
  • A Triptych: Irrational Theatre at the King's Head - Opera review (***)
  • Topsy-turvy fun: Cal McCrystal directs G&S's Iolanthe - Opera review (*****)
  • Old-fashioned passion: Benjamin Godard's Dante - CD review
  • Korngold's Die tote Stadti at the Semperoper in Dresden - Opera review (****)
  • Powerful stuff: Verdi's La forza del Destino in Cardiff - Opera review (****)
  • A Portrait: composer Dai Fujikura introduces the music at the forthcoming Wigmore Hall concert  - my interview
  • Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen - Willy Decker's production at the Semperoper, Dresden - opera review
  • A Heine songbook - Robin Tritschler and Christopher Glynn - concert review
  • Intimate and finely judged: Orlando Gibbons complete consort anthems   - CD review
  • Giovanni Croce revealed - motetti & cantiones sacrae - CD review
  • Home

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