Thursday 7 March 2019

Children's Hour: Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann at Pizza Express Live

Gareth Brynmor John
Gareth Brynmor John
The basement music room of the Pizza Express at the Pheasantry on the Kings Road in Chelsea is usually host to cabaret artists as part of Pizza Express Live, but a new monthly Art Song Series has started there under the artistic directorship of pianist William Vann. We went along last night (6 March 2019) for The Children's Hour, an intriguing programme from baritone Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann which explored children and children's stories from an adult point of view, including Richard Rodney Bennett's song cycle Songs before Sleep. John and Vann have recently recorded the programme for disc and The Children's Hour will be issued on Champs Hill Records later this year.

The room is very much geared up to intimate cabaret, and our table was far closer to the performers than would be usual in a more conventional concert hall, and of course there was also the possibility to eat and drink though most people did so before the music started. But even so, there was something delightfully casual about sitting at a table, with a glass of wine listening to a serious programme of art songs in such a relaxed atmosphere.

The two performers introduced the programme, and this added to both the casual feeling and the sense of close intimacy between performers and audience. Both are family men with young children, and the idea for the programme arose from personal experience, expanding Charles Ives' Longfellow setting The Children's Hour into ideas arising from the time spent with children just before bedtime, usually reading stories and such. William Vann at one point commented that whilst the second section of the first half, Days out and Adventures, included plenty of pirates, they had been unable to find any songs about dinosaurs, his son's current obsession!

Following the Ives, the first half was Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales, starting with two vigorous 19th century figures, Carl Loewe's Tom der Reimer and then Schubert's Erlkonig, which made a strong effect in such an intimate space, followed by Schumann's Der Sandmann was a striking piece brought the audience into spontaneous applause. It was lovely hear one of Liza Lehmann's settings of Hilare Belloc's Cautionary Tales, Henry King a delightful piece that made me regret that we don't hear more of these songs. This section finished with Britten's Little Sir William, itself a cautionary tale which Britten's setting brings out the strangeness.

Days out and Adventures gave us pirates and more, starting with Ives' almost phantasmagorial Tom Sails Away, and Howell's vivid evocation of a ship-wrecked sailor Andy Battle. Peter Warlock's Captain Stratton's Fancy and Stanford's Drakes Drum brought pirates, adventurers and more, and we finished with Ives' outrageous evocation of The Circus Band, and here William Vann really excelled himself on the piano.

Richard Rodney Bennett's Songs before Sleep sets six nursery rhymes, with texts taken from the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes so that we get unfamiliar versions of familiar texts and longer original versions, for example I had never come across the full five verses of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' before. Bennett does not write children's music, this is definitely from an adult point of view and the resulting songs are brilliant and complex, with styles even encompassing the Blues.

The final section took us to Lullabies and Bedtime but again, in a complex adult manner. First Moshe Milner's lovely Viglid, in Yiddish, and then Herbert Howell's Full moon. Mendelssohn's Nacthlied seemed to introduce us to a far more adult world, one which continued with Faure's lovely Sully-Prudhomme setting Les Berceaux before we ended with Brahms' well known Wigenlied.

We had printed song texts, but John's diction was so good that, combined with the intimate venue we hardly needed the words.

The Art Song series at the Pheasantry proved a delightful way to experience song in a rather different, intimate environment. The series continues with In search of Youkali: the life and songs of Kurt Weill with Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), William Vann (piano) and Phil Cornwell (double bass) on 10 April 2019, A voyage into American song with April Frederick (soprano) and William Vann (piano) on 8 May 2019, and Songs of Home from Njabulo Madlala (baritone) and William Vann. Full details from the Pizza Express Live website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • 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
  • Neapolitan revival: Rossini's Elizabeth in a rare staging from English Touring Opera  - opera review
  • Glitter and sparkle: The Merry Widow at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin  - interview
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • Home

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