Thursday 13 June 2019

Songs of Home: Njabulo Madlala and William Vann at Pizza Express

Njabulo Madlala
Njabulo Madlala
Songs of Home - Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Quilter, Schumann, traditional South African songs; Njabulo Madlala, William Vann; The Pheasantry, Pizza Express
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2019
A mixture of English song, German lieder and South African traditional songs in this engaging programme from South African baritone Njabulo Madlala

The Art Song Series at Pizza Express Live's The Pheasantry in Chelsea continued on Tuesday 11 June 2019, when baritone Njabulo Madlala and pianist William Vann presented Songs of Home, a programme of English and German song alongside songs from South Africa. The programme reflected the various influences that home might mean, as Madlala was born in Durban, South Africa but came to the UK on a scholarship to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and he subsequently won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2010.

For the first half we had songs reflecting the classical side of Madlala's life with English song and German lieder by RVW, Schubert, Roger Quilter and Robert Schumann. But before that Madlala opened with an evocative version of the spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot with its second line, 'Coming for to carry me home'.

A pair of songs from RVW's Songs of Travel rather whetted your appetite for the complete cycle, and they followed this with Linden Lea. In all three, Madlala's expressive English made you rather forget that the language is not his mother tongue. Next came Schubert, continuing the theme of wanderers and wandering, with Liebesbotschaft, Wandrers Nachtlied and Rastlose Liebe. The advantage of this song series being the ability to hear such communicative performances at such close quarters. Singing from memory, with fine diction, Madlala almost made the translations redundant.

Three Roger Quilter songs came next, the Shakespeare setting O Mistress Mine plus two on a flower theme, Go, lovely Rose and Now sleeps the Crimson Petal. This set finished with more flowers from Robert Schumann, Die Lotosblume and Du bist wie eine Blume, and finally a finely intense account of Stille tranen.

The atmosphere changed completely for the second half, when Madlala and Vann were joined by Olufemi Sofela on bass guitar and Tosin Williams on drums. For some of the songs, Madlala was joined by a young South African tenor who was on one of Madlala's programmes in South Africa for young singers, and who is hoping to come to the UK to study. Most of these songs were ones that Madlala learned from his grandmother, love songs, lullabyes, men longing for home, themes which have resonance all over but which take on a special meaning in the context of Apartheid-era South African. They finished with a traditional Xhosa song, 'Qongqothwane' which is traditionally sung at weddings but is known in Europe as The Click Song (because of the distinctive Xhosa click consonants). This was a far more relaxed half, ending the concert on an engaging and uplifting note.

The Art Song Series continues on Saturday 6 July 2019 for the final concert of the Spring/Summer 2019 series, when William Vann will be joined by soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon and baritone Johnny Herford for Hugo Wolf's Italian Song Book.

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