Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Byron's Grand Tour

Lord Byron painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813.
Lord Byron painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813.
Settings of Byron by Henry Bishop, Charles Horn, Alexander Lee, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Charles Gounod, Hubert Parry, Maude Valerie White, Hugo Wolf, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Roger Quilter; Amanda Pitt, Gavin Roberts; St Marylebone Festival at St Marylebone Parish Church Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 July 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Byron's Grand Tour: settings of the great poet's works by contemporaries and other 19th century composers

This year's St Marylebone Festival at St Marylebone Parish Church (until 27 July 2018) is celebrating local musical connections. On 24 July 2018 at the lunchtime concert, soprano Amanda Pitt and pianist Gavin Roberts (musical director at the church) gave us Byron's Grand Tour, a celebration of the work of the great poet who was baptised in St Marylebone (the present grand Regency church was built in 1817 when the poet was 29). Actor Neil Stuke read extracts from Byron's poetry, whilst Pitt and Roberts performed songs setting Byron by Henry Bishop, Charles Horn, Alexander Lee, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Charles Gounod, Hubert Parry, Maude Valerie White, Hugo Wolf, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Roger Quilter.

The programme was organised to follow Byron's Grand Tour of 1809 to 1811, starting with Stanzas to a Lady on leaving England, working through Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, The Bride of Abydos, A journey through Albania, The Corsair, Hebrew Melodies, Manfred, and ending with extracts from letters and journals.

Whilst there were quite a number of settings of Byron's poetry during his lifetime, later English composers have not seized on his poetry with alacrity and what was noticeable in the recital was the number of major European composers setting Byron. You can, perhaps, understand why. Byron's poetry is highly structured, with strong rhyming schemes, and this does not always lend itself to the lyric art.

The poems seemed to fit well with the earlier composers, writing in the parlour ballad tradition, whilst the non-British composers, setting Byron in translation, were able to treat his words with more freedom.

We had songs by Charles Horn (1786 - 1849) and Alexander Lee (1802-1851), neither of whom I had come across before. Horn was a composer and singer, he was Caspar in Weber's Der Freischutz in London in 1824 and eventually emigrated to the USA. Alexander Lee was also a singer and composer, and in fact, his father was a pugilist. Their songs were attractive ballads, often with quirky imaginative touches, and Pitt and Robert committed fully to the songs and brought out their charm. Another more familiar name was that of Henry Bishop, and the recital ended with Maude Valerie White's gently melancholy setting of So we'll go no more a-roving.

From the more well-known later English composers, we had Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Solitude, a song full of interesting moments but which never seemed to quite come off, Roger Quilter's beautifully crafted There be none of beauty's daughters,  in a lovely intimate performance, and Hubert Parry's When we two are parted, full of lyrical beauty with a lovely melancholy end.

Moving to the Continent, we heard Gounod's nicely lilting The Maid of Athens, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn's Farewell, which mined a vein rather darker than some of the songs and combined lyricism with seriousness of purpose, Hugo Wolf's Sonne der Schlummerlosen (Sun of the Sleepless), with its highly striking sound-world and textures which really evoked the words,  Robert Schumann's Mein Herz ist schwer (My soul is dark, from Myrthen), perhaps the best-known song in the recital and sung with a lyrical intimacy,  and Felix Mendelssohn's surprisingly lively Keine von der Erde Schonen.

This was a fascinating recital, and certainly needed plenty of research to assemble. There were a few great songs, but then major poetry does not always beget major songs. Instead, we were able to explore the many and varied 19th century reactions to the sheer popularity of Byron's poetry. The performances from AmandaPitt and Gavin Roberts were admirable. Pitt sang with a warmly flexible line and appealing directness, and both performers brought out the best in each song.

The St Marylebone Festival continues until 27 July 2018.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • It’s Opera Giacomo, but not as we know it - Turandot at Torre del Lago (★★★) - Opera review
  • A study in dementia: a radical new version of Verdi's Nabucco from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★) - Opera review
  • Lithe and musically engaging: Verdi's I Lombardi from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Premiere of a rarity: Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida from Opera Rara and the Royal Opera - (★★★★★) Opera review
  • An impressive achievement: Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park - (★★★★½) Opera review
  • Alissa Firsova: Fantasy  (★★★★) - CD review
  • The cabaret tradition: Melinda Hughes, Jeremy Limb & friends in Weimar and Back (★★★½)  - CD review
  • A new, yet familiar piece: Benjamin Zander on his interpretation of Beethoven's Choral Symphony  - interview
  • More than just Vox patris coelestis: a new William Mundy disc from Edinburgh (★★★★)  - CD review
  • 75th birthday celebrations: Robin Holloway's chamber music on Sheva Contemporary  (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Striking a chord: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as a musical at the Young Vic  - (★★★★)  musical theatre review
  • Home

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