Saturday, 16 March 2019

Almost music theatre: Dominick Argento and Schumann song cycles about Virginia Woolf and Mary, Queen of Scots, expanded with dramatic texts from Sarah Connolly at Wigmore Hall

Virginia Woolf and Ethel Smyth
Virginia Woolf and Ethel Smyth
Zemlinsky, Schumann, Argento; Sarah Connolly, Julius Drake, Emily Berrington; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An interweaving of song and text as Schumann's Mary Stuart and Dominick Argento's Virginia Woolf are set in context and expanded into something close to music theatre

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly's residency at the Wigmore Hall is proving to be interesting in the way she is exploring various collaborations. Last year she performed Judith Bingham with the choir Tenebrae [see my review], French song with baritone James Newby plus instrumentalists, and in April she is being joined by tenor Robin Tritschler and mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley.

Last night, 15 March 2019, Sarah Connolly and pianist Julius Drake were joined by actor Emily Berrington at Wigmore Hall for a programme of song cycles by Alexander Zemlinsky, Robert Schumann and Dominick Argento, but with a difference. For Robert Schumann's Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart Op. 135 , Schumann's songs were interspersed with texts from Schiller's play Mary Stuart (taken from Robert Icke's recent translation), whilst Dominick Argento's song cycle From the diary of Virginia Woolf was interspersed with readings from Woolf's diaries. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Dominick Argento who died in February this year.

Sarah Connolly (Photo Christopher Pledger)
Sarah Connolly (Photo Christopher Pledger)
Zemlinsky's Sechs Gesänge Op. 13 set poems by the Belgian symbolist poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck in German translations by Friedrich von Oppein-Bronikowski. As such they provide a fascinating link between Pierrot Lunaire, settings of German translations of Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud by Zemlinsky's pupil Arnold Schoenberg, and Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande setting Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck's poems as selected by Zemlinsky are all rather oblique, yet each features women being tested and badly treated, with endings often being left up in the air. One big feature of the songs in the original version for voice and piano is that few have piano introductions, they plunge straight in (Zemlinsky would add introductions when he orchestrated the pieces).

The music combines folk-ish elements with more turbulent passages with highly taxing piano parts. In her programme note Laura Tunbridge linked the folk-ish elements to Mahler, especially his Wunderhornlieder, but I also heard Kurt Weill both his later German style and his more complex manner during his studies in Berlin with Busoni. An intriguing link. Textures were often sparse, moving to more contorted harmonies for the more intense sections, all delivered with brilliant directness and intensity by Sarah Connolly with partnered by some superb piano playing from Julius Drake whose gusts of complex, expressionist piano acted as a commentary on the strange, hypnotic world of the songs. I am still not sure what they meant, but Connolly's sense of identification and great storytelling held us spell-bound.

After this came Schumann's Mary Stuart. Schumann set five poems, probably selected by Clara Schumann, which the Schumanns thought were by Mary Queen of Scots but were in fact later fabrications. These songs date from 1852, so are very late Schumann and prime examples of his rather intense and direct late style. Concentrated and direct, with remarkably spare and often chordal piano, Schumann sets the text syllabically and Connolly brought a lovely suppleness to her vocal line whilst making the words count. The music sometimes approached recitative, and songs like 'Abschied von der Welt' were apparently very simple yet intense and powerful. And this directness of utterance worked will the the subject, the idea of Mary Stuart.

This was intensified with Laura Tunbridge's selection from Schiller's Mary Stuart, along with elements from Sir Walter Scott, to provide a brief background and context for each song. The result was a fascinating bi-partite narrative with each woman, Sarah Connolly and Emily Berrington giving us a slightly different version of Mary Stuart yet the two added up to a surprising whole.

After the interval we had Dominick Argento's 1974 song cycle, From the diary of Virginia Woolf. I first came across these songs earlier this year when Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper performed 'Anxiety' as part of their From the pens of women recital at Wigmore Hall [see my review]. In fact these two recitals seemed appropriately complementary, with Whately and Lepper concentrating on songs by women (either as composer or as poet) whilst Connolly and Drake gave us three song cycles where male composers write about women.

Kate Kennedy, Weinrebe Research Fellow in Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford, had assembled a selection from Virginia Woolf's diaries which were spoken between Argento's songs. Rather than put the diary entries into context, probably quite a tricky thing to do, Kennedy gave us a parallel narrative which was a series of meditations about music; music being something which came into Woolf's life a lot from her essay on Street Music, visits to Bayreuth and experiencing Parsifal for the first time, visits to the Queen's Hall and the Aeolian Hall, music on the piano in Gordon Square and of course her friendship with composer Dame Ethel Smythe. It proved a fascinating and illuminating narrative, Woolf's voice in the diaries has a sharpness, directness of utterance and almost sarcasm, combined with a powerfully poetic sense of observation that the Berrington's spoken narrative was completely absorbing. Perhaps too much so, and I felt that the substantial sections of spoken diary sometimes competed with rather than complementing the songs.

The result was almost music theatre, and perhaps this version of the song cycle would make a fine staging, with two Woolf's giving us subtly different versions of herself. Argento's songs take diary entries from the first in 1919 to the last in 1941, each a microcosm to which Argento brings a highly developed aural sense with an expressionist lyrical vocal line which uses Woolf's text to create another authorial voice. And the beauty of Argento's writing is that, despite the way he varies textures and tone during the cycle, the voice of the sung Virginia Woolf was a very dramatic and coherent creation, something Connolly's performance brought out. She was complemented by Julius Drake's superb account of the virtuoso piano part, this partnered the singer rather than accompanying her, and was sometimes sparse, sometimes remarkably dense but Drake always made the notes count and created Argento's complex textures with a fine sense of musical clarity.

As the cycle progressed it was fascinating to hear how Argento wove elements of musical reminiscence into the piece, so that in 'Rome' the piano has fragments of half familiar, almost piano bar cabaret music over which Woolf muses her monologue. And this was how the writing worked, with Argento using the piano to create the environment in which the authorial/vocal Woolf held her inner monologue. For 'Hardy's Funeral' we had strong, almost unison statements, yet Woolf's thoughts flowed around moving away from the funeral to other concerns. Reminisence in piano came into 'Parents' as Woolf remembered. Incantatory repetition was another theme, and this created a striking effect for the opening of the last song 'Last Entry', with its repetitions of 'No' and repeated chords in the piano,  here also and the music from 'Parents reappeared in and the cycle finished with a return to the opening diary entry.


Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Emotional soundscapes: the music of young Australian composer Brendon John Warner on his debut album La fonte  - CD review
  • Highly engaging: revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, ENO & Complicité (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Magnificent original: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake restored in a superb performance from Vladimir Jurowski on Pentatone (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate conversations: the young Jubilee Quartet in three quartets spanning 20 years of Haydn's maturity (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Riveting drama: Peter Konwitschny's production of Halevy's La Juive at Opera Vlaanderen (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Claustrophobic & atmospheric: Verdi's Macbeth from English Touring Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • Letting the music speak for itself: Mozart's Idomeneo from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Cadogan Hall debut: the Gesualdo Six in a programme of Renaissance and Contemporary (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Children's Hour: intimate and delightfully casual, Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann at Pizza Express Live - concert review
  • Haydn's The Seasons from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Virtuosity and intimacy: Flauguissimo duo's A Salon Opera  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Political piano and terrific technique: Adam Swayne's (speak to me): new music, new politics (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month