Friday 25 September 2020

Richard Strauss, Coleridge-Taylor, Mahler - Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper in outstanding form at Wigmore Hall

Simon Lepper and Elizabeth Llewellyn at Wigmore Hall (Image taken from live stream)
Simon Lepper and Elizabeth Llewellyn at Wigmore Hall
(Image taken from live stream)

Richard Strauss, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Six Sorrow Songs, Gustav Mahler Rückert Lieder ; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 September 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Concentrated magic and sustained intensity of emotion in songs by three late-Romantic near contemporaries

Making what was, I think, her Wigmore Hall recital debut on Wednesday 23 September 2020 at a lunchtime recital, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn had put together a programme of songs by three late-Romantic near contemporaries. Accompanied by pianist Simon Lepper, Llewellyn sang a group of songs by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Einerlei Op.69 No.3, Allerseelen Op.10 No.8, Nachtgang Op.29 No.3, Die Nacht Op.10 No. 3 and Stanchen Op.17 No.2, the Six Sorrow Songs by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), and the Rückert Lieder by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).

The three composers made for a fascinating comparison, three different attitudes to late-Romanticism, three different approaches to song, and you wondered how familiar each composer was with the work of the others. 

The Strauss songs all date from the period 1885 to 1895 except for Einerlei which was written in 1918. Whilst Strauss was a prolific writer of songs, the majority come from before 1906, and after the First World War his song output slowed considerably. The hiatus between 1906 and 1918 was partly caused by the flowering of his operatic career (Salome premiered in 1905), but also by a disagreement with his publisher!

Elizabeth Llewellyn's group of songs started with the contemplation of love, then moved through love lost to love remembered in the night, and finally a night-time serenade. We last saw Llewellyn in English National Opera's production of Verdi's Luisa Miller in February 2020 [see my review], and when I interviewed her in 2016 she was moving into lirico-spinto territory, and her recent performances in Germany have included the title role in Verdi's Aida (at Teater Bielefeld) yet her most recent performance in the UK was as Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme with Scottish Opera [see review in The Guardian]. So there is a richness to her voice, allied to a lyric flexibility and a fine middle and lower voice with an attractively fascinating quality to it.

Einerlei started with a gloriously rich stream of sound and shapely fluid phrases, yet the performance was highly engaging. Llewellyn sang the recital from memory and in all the songs she engaged dramatically with her audience, delighting in projecting character and telling stories without ever pushing the music into full-blown operatic drama. In Allerseelen, I certainly did not miss the orchestra when listening to the colours and phrasing of Simon Lepper's playing, and Llewellyn's opening finely controlled and sober, simply slipping in as if continuing something said earlier, yet each stanza had a gradual release of tone till the powerfully intense ending. Here, and elsewhere I enjoyed the sculptured shape of her phrases, and the liquid quality which she brought to them. Nachtgang was highly contained, yet phrases would blossom and then retreat, and there was a vivid intensity of emotion in her performance. Die Nacht was finely delicate and beautifully descriptive with evocative moments in both piano and voice. Finally, Standchen in a delightfully engaging performance with delicate pianism from Simon Lepper, leading to wonderful rapture at the end. 

We have heard Elizabeth Llewellyn in operatic roles by Verdi and Puccini, and in Germany she has sung Wagner jugend-dramatisch roles, yet having heard this group of songs I wonder why no-one has snapped her up to perform some of Richard Strauss' heroines.

Considering his relatively short life (he died at the age of 37), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's output was considerable, running to over 80 opus numbers. Coleridge-Taylor studied with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and whilst Stanford's own technique owed a lot to the German tradition, notably Brahms, the stable of young composers that he nurtured was rather more varied. Stanford is known to have admired his young student's music. Yet, whilst Coleridge-Taylor's music is being explored more nowadays (and his chamber music is certainly becoming more common), his songs seem to be less well known. His Six Sorrow Songs date from 1904 and set poems by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). They were published in 1906 and dedicated to his wife. The six poems by Rossetti do not form a narrative, but instead a thread of commonality to the emotion runs through. The poems include the well known When I am dead, my dearest and the group finishes with Too late for love, too late for joy

The drama of the first song, 'Oh what comes over the sea' rather reminded me of Elgar's Sea Pictures (1899) and Llewellyn's gorgeous rich tone was complemented by Lepper's darkly dramatic piano. 'When I am dead, my dearest' was a far more melodic piece, with vague overtones of the salon, yet fascinatingly expressive. 'O roses for the flush of youth' was notable for its rather haunting melody, with a lovely accompaniment. 'She sat and sang alway' was liltingly lyrical yet Coleridge-Taylor kept allowing the vocal line to blossom with striking melismatic passages, whilst Llewellyn brought great intensity of emotion to 'Unmindful of the roses'. The final song started off almost strophic, yet after the second verse we had a striking piano interlude leading to new and rather memorable material, melodic yet complex. 

Coleridge-Taylor was only 29 when he wrote these songs, yet we hear a confident and distinctive voice. And whilst some of them seem to gravitate to the salon that is perhaps deliberate, as Coleridge-Taylor would certainly have had one eye on sales. But it is not clear why his songs are not more explored. Certainly Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper proved powerful advocates, and performed them with great love.

Gustav Mahler's Rückert Lieder were written in 1901 and 1902 and were not originally intended as a cycle, but eventually the five would be grouped together and printed as such. Whilst the songs are best known in their orchestral guise, I have always found appealing the greater intimacy that the piano version brings. And certainly, with Simon Lepper's sensitive playing and wide tonal range there was a great deal to enjoy and little to miss. Elizabeth Llewellyn gave a strong dramatic purpose to each song, really telling a story.

'Ich atmet' einen linden Duft' was very much about love remembered, with a superb contrast between Llewellyn's lovely fluid tone and the delicate piano textures. 'Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder' brought vivid energy and intensity with great dramatic engagement from the performers, whilst 'Liebst du um Schoenheit' was very touching, but Llewellyn made the phrases blossom expressively.  'Um Mitternacht' was fabulously controlled and centred, with terrific playing from Lepper and sculpted phrases from Llewellyn. It was an intense, yet bleak performance turning the screw in the final verses. With Mahler's piano interludes Llewellyn listened intently and still reacted to the music. And then finally, all was glorious tone and firmness of purpose. Lepper's piano introduction to 'Ich ben der Welt abhanden gekommen' made my spine tingle. Llewellyn was bleak here, yet very centred, this was a performance of concentrated magic with sustained intensity of emotion in the voice. 

And reading the words of the final verse again, I was struck by their bleak aptness to our present circumstances - 'I am dead to the world's tumult/and rest in a quiet realm./I live alone in my heaven,/in my loving, in my song' (translation by Richard Stokes from The Book of Lieder, Faber & Faber).

Introducing her encore, Llewellyn said that we can never have too much Coleridge-Taylor, and she and Lepper performed that composer's song 'Big lady moon' from Five Fairy Ballads. 

The concert is available for streaming on the Wigmore Hall website.

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