Tuesday 19 February 2019

Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women

Kitty Whately (Photo Natalie J Watts)
Kitty Whately (Photo Natalie J Watts)
From the Pens of Women - Jonathan Dove, RVW, Judith Cloud, Lori Latman, Dominick Argento, Rebecca Clarke, Juliana Hall; Kitty Whately, Simon Lepper; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Four women writers brought vividly to life in songs by 20th century and contemporary composers

In her interview with me last week, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately talked about the need to be imaginative in programming more music by women composers.
For their BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall on Monday 18 February 2019, Kitty Whately and pianist Simon Lepper cast their eye not only over women composers but women writers too. From the Pens of Women showcased 20th and 21st century songs setting texts by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf and Edna St Vincent Millay with music by Jonathan Dove, RVW, Judith Cloud, Lori Laitman, Dominick Argento, Rebecca Clarke, and Juliana Hall.

The programme was bookended with music by Jonathan Dove, opening with songs from his 2004 cycle All the Future Days, setting Ursula Vaughan Williams, and ending with his 2015 cycle Nights Not Spent Alone setting Edna St Vincent Millay, commissioned by the BBC for Kitty Whately. Following Dove's Ursula Vaughan Williams settings we heard RVW's Four Last Songs, also setting his wife's words. Two contemporary American women composers provided settings of poems by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, Judith Cloud's 'Variations on the Word Sleep' from Night Dreams (2006), and Lori Latiman's 'I Was Reading A Scientific Article' from Orange Afternoon Lover (2006). Dominick Argento's 'Anxiety' from From the Diary of Virginia Woolf  (1974) gave us a glimpse of the great British writer, and then the final section moved to Edna St Vincent Millay with Rebecca Clarke's Lethe (1941), two songs from Juliana Hall's Letters from Edna (1993), and ending with the Dove.

It was an imaginative concept, and the sense of the women's poetry and texts threaded its way through the concert with different composers providing different approaches, but all seemed to prioritise the text. To a certain extent, by calling the concert From the Pens of Women, Kitty Whately was making a rod for her own back as the text needed to have some priority. But throughout the concert her diction was superb so that we hardly needed the song sheets, and in each song Whately and Lepper gave us a remarkable combination of text and music.

We heard three songs from Jonathan Dove's All the Future Days, a private commission setting poems by Ursula Vaughan Williams. 'Autobiography' was highly atmospheric with its shimming piano textures and dramatic vocal line; Whately and Lepper made it vibrant and rather inspiring. 'Penelope' was rather sparer, with the voice often unaccompanied, creating something powerful and bleak in a compelling performance. Finally 'The Siren' introduced a vivid seascape in the piano, a backdrop for the fast narrative with its thrilling climaxes, creating something rather operatic.

RVW's Four Last Songs represent work in progress, left on his desk at his death (probably from two different cycles) and giving remarkable testament to his compositional vitality in his 80s. 'Procris' was very affecting, it started rather sparely, just voice and a single line of the piano, and though textures developed a certain bleakness remained, enlived by the vibrancy of the performance from Whately and Lepper. Whately brought quiet warmth and strong personality to 'Tired', making the song rather magical, whilst 'Hands, Eyes and Heart' had great freedom. 'Menelaus' gave us great story-telling, with a mesmerising concentration on the speaker of the verse, supported by atmospheric piano.

Judith Cloud's song cycle Night Dreams sets four poems by Margaret Atwood and we heard the third, 'Variations on the Word Sleep'. There was rather an engaging voice in the music, with its lyrical setting of free verse performed with quiet concentration by Whately and Lepper.  Lori Laitman's 'I Was Reading a Scientific Article' is also from a cycle of settings of Atwood's poetry, Orange Afternoon Lover. The song was lyrical and flowing, with a great sense of the original poem and some strikingly spiky harmonies at the work's climax.

Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf was written in 1974 and sets eight extracts from Woolf's diary. One of the fascinating things about the recital was that none of the text was written to be sung, and some like the diary entries for Virginia Woolf and the letters of Edna St Vincent Millay were not even explicitly poetic. 'Anxiety', the second song of Argento's cycle, set an entry from 1920 about extreme anxiety, the song's vivid and spiky music, fast pace and dazzling textures matched the anxiety of the poem. It certainly made me want to hear the complete cycle, and someone should ask Whately and Lepper to perform it, please.

Rebecca Clarke remains best known for her Viola Sonata and for the scandal surrounding the 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge with the assumption Clarke's name must be a pseudonym for a man! Lethe from 1941 sets an Edna St Vincent Millay poem with lyrical intensity. You can hear echoes of older composers like RVW in the music, but Clarke brings out her own distinctive voice, and though the song was lyrical it certainly was not comfortable.

Juliana Hall's 1993 song cycle Leters from Edna is a sequence of eight settings of Edna St Vincent Millay's letters, we heard two songs from the cycle. 'To Harriet Monroe' (1918) and 'To Mother' (1921). The first, with its reiterations of how broke the poet was, was spiky and perky with very pointed words, whilst the second was a sort of lyrical love song. Both giving a strong sense of the poet's voice.

The concert closed  with Jonathan Dove's 2015 cycle Nights Not Spent Alone setting three Edna St Vincent Millay poems. 'Recuerdo' created a strong sense of the poet's evocative memories. Dove used quite simple gestures as the building blocks for the song, yet the result was highly effective. 'What lips my lips have kissed' again was about memories, and this evocative setting gave hints at the passions past, with the piano seeming to evoke the music of old waltzes, yet it rose to a climax of lyrical passion with the poet's realisation that something has passed. Finally, 'I too beneath your moon' with its vivid Latin-American rhythms building in intensity.

The concert is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Nights Not Spent Alone: complete works for mezzo-soprano by Jonathan Dove - Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper; Champs Hill Records - available online.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child  - interview
  • Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet (★★) - concert review
  • Verdi in Oman: La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat (★★) - opera review
  • Youth shines: Savitri Grier in Elgar's Violin Concerto - concert review
  • From play to opera: Marlowe's Edward II and Benjamin & Crimp's Lessons in Love & Violence - feature article 
  • A romantic at heart: I chat to violinist Sarah Chang about her forthcoming Cadogan Hall recital - interview
  • A jolly good show: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Welsh National Opera  (★★) - opera review
  • From the Pens of Women: Kitty Whately on her forthcoming Wigmore Hall recital & the challenges of bringing music by women composers to the fore - interview
  • Black composers series 1974-1978 - CD review
  • Home

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