Monday 2 December 2019

Leaving us wanting more: Jamie Barton has the audience on the palm of her hand in this finely sung recital at Wigmore Hall

Jamie Barton (Photo Bree Anne Clowdus)
Jamie Barton (Photo Bree Anne Clowdus)
Warren, Boulanger, Beach, Haydn, Larsen, Ravel, Duparc, Strauss; Jamie Barton, Kathleen Kelley; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 November 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Women composers to the fore in Jamie Barton's finely sung recital

Not every opera singer is able to transfer their art to the recital room, communicating directly with a visible audience and fining their voice down. But on Saturday 30 November 2019, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton showed that she could capture the audience of the Wigmore Hall as successfully as that of Covent Garden, the Met (or the Royal Albert Hall, where she sang the Last Night of the Proms in 2019).

On Saturday 30 November 2019, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was joined by pianist Kathleen Kelly at the Wigmore Hall for a programme by and inspired by women. There were songs by Elinor Remick Warren, Lili Boulanger, Amy Beach and Nadia Boulanger, plus Maurice Ravel, Hentri Duparc & Richard Strauss, plus Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos and Libby Larsen's song cycle Love after 1950.

We began with a group of songs by women composers from the early 20th century. Elinor Remick Warren (1900-1991) was a name that was new to me. She studied composition privately in the USA and was also in demand as an accompanist. Her song Heather was written in the 1930s and made famous by the soprano Jeanette MacDonald (famous for her films with Nelson Eddy). Not surprisingly for music from a professional accompanist, the song was beautifully put together and sung very communicatively. It was old-fashioned for its period yet with lovely hints of Debussy in the piano offsetting a slightly parlour-ballad-ish air to the song. Jamie Barton paid the song the compliment of believing in it, displaying superb control of the vocal line and giving his highly communicative words.

Next followed Attente, a setting of words by Maurice Maeterlinck by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) dating from 1912. The whole is mysterious and implied, we are simply given an evocative picture of a moment, with sinuous vocal line and undulating piano. The result was a very seductive but nebulous atmosphere,  crowned by Barton's fabulous, lightly sketched-in top note.

Throughout the recital we were impressed not only by the way Barton was able to communicate directly with the audience, and she is indeed a very communicative, very visual singer, but also the control she has of her instrument, able to float those glorious top notes as much as well as blast us with power.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) is from an earlier generation of American composers. Her song 'Ah, Love, but a day' comes from her Three Browning Songs of 1900. Here the harmonies were relatively traditional, but there was nothing parlour-ish about the song's inspiration. Jamie Barton gave a deeply felt performance, and we appreciated the flexible, richly supported vocal line. There was the hint that Barton and Kelly put more into the song than it, perhaps, deserved but the result was terrific.

Lili Boulanger's sister Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) abandoned her own composition career to foster that of her sister, and in the process became one of the 20th centuries major pedagogues. More recently, Nadia Boulanger's own compositions have been re-discovered and appreciated in their own right. Her song S'il arrive jamais (from 1909) was richly passionate, with a flowing piano and a vocal line which plunged straight in.

The first half concluded with Haydn's cantata, Arianna a Naxos, written around 1790 for voice and keyboard (Haydn intended to orchestrate it, but never got around to it). Katy Hamilton's programme note suggested the work may have been written for the Venetian soprano Bianca Sacchetti (who may well have supplied the words). But, the limited vocal compass and keyboard writing suggest that, as with Haydn's songs, he was aiming at the popular amateur market as much as the professional singer. It is relatively unusual in the composer's repertoire, and rightly popular with singers, allying the baroque cantata with a remarkable Classical sympathy.

After a slow introduction, an initial recitative sees Arianna wake contentedly and in her first aria ask him to return to her, in the second recitative the drama hots up, and we hear Haydn the opera composer as Arianna climbs a hill and sees Theseus' ship pulling away, abandoning her. The final aria moves from melancholy to anger. Barton started with remarkable languour in the recitative, with an elegantly expressive first aria. There was something in the lovely way she shaped the classical phrases, and throughout the cantata Barton kept within the classical envelope, gave us a great sense of line and phrase, yet was always communicative and expressive.

For the second recitative, the emotions were vividly delineated both aurally visually, there was a definite dramatic element here. The style might have been on the grand side, very much not Historically Informed, but the musicality of the performance was superb and Barton made much of her strong stage presence. The first section of the final aria was profoundly moving, and elegant to, concluding with a vividly done presto.

After the interval we heard the song cycle Love after 1950 by composer Libby Larsen (born 1950), written in 2000 for the mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. The cycle sets a variety of women poets to depict a very 20th century woman's view of a Woman's Life and Love, taking in topics which are not often heard in the Wigmore Hall (the fourth song 'Love Hurts' discourses on shaving and depilatory cream), providing a much-needed corrective to the male gaze of such song cycles as Schumann's Frauen-liebe und -leben with its words written from a woman's point of view by a man.

Larsen's music includes references to popular styles of the period, yet always woven into her own distinctive style. The result was a cycle which, in the hands of Jamie Barton, was funny and brilliantly entertaining, but was also thoughtful and strongly articulated a very different view point.

'Boy's Lips' (setting Rita Dove) was spare, blues-y and elegantly evocative, with Larsen very effectively using a type of recitative for the key phrase, in the middle, when the young girl describes a boy's lips. Very effective indeed. 'Blond Men' (setting Julie Kane) was the same interesting musical voice, but this time with cabaret-ish music. There was a nebulous quality to the harmonies, complementing the very pointed words where the poet emphasises how much she hates blond men, but we become aware of the opposite. The result was rather sexy, and very, very funny. 'Big Sister Says, 1967' (setting Kathryn Daniels) might be subtitled, Love Hurts, as it detailed all the things you needed to do to look beautiful. Here the music was period rock, but spiky. And fabulously performed by Kelly and Barton, with the latter making the song both touching and funny. At the ended she even broke into dance, a bravura performance. 'The Empty Song' (setting Liz Lochhead) was laid back cocktail cabaret, but underneath there were dance-rhythm hints as the poet hymns the end of her Spanish shampoo, and by corollary celebrates her first three months without her lover. It was funny, but with sparer, bleaker moments. The final song, 'I Make My Magic' (setting Muriel Rukeyser) was more mysterious, less of a character song. Passionately performed, it made a less than obvious and rather intriguing ending for the cycle with the invocation of 'You, you, you'.

We ended with a group of songs by male composers, two written to women and the first an unashamed re-purposing of a song written by a man for a man to sing. Ravel's 'Chanson a boire' from DOn Quichotte a Dulcinee was originally intended for a film with Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, but Ravel (who was ill) was unable to complete the commission in time. 'Chanson a boire' is a hymn to the joys of drinking, given a wonderfully vivid performance by Barton, who made it full of character without distorting the vocal line and showing great sympathy with the French language. There was then a remarkable transition to Henri Duparc's Phydile, which was elegant and controlled yet richly expressive with a flexible vocal line. Both singer and pianist brought a sense of concentrated calm to the song, rather than simply luxuriating in its beauty. The final song was an impulsively passionate account of Richard Strauss' Cäcilie, in which Barton finally let loose her richly passionate top register.

Put together with a certain spare elegance, this was certainly a recital which left you wanting more. Much as I enjoyed the Larsen, it did not feel quite like the meat that we expect at the centre of a recital, and it was somewhat frustrating to have just one of the Ravel songs (why not all three), and single examples of Strauss and Duparc.

A very full Wigmore Hall had a remarkably varied, and remarkably young audience, many of whom were rightly very vocal in their appreciation of Barton's performance. We were rewarded with a single encore, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's song 'Somewhere over the rainbow' from the film The Wizard of Oz, which Barton sang for the first time at this year's Last Night of the Proms.

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