Saturday 17 October 2020

Six Songs of Melmoth: premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's new song-cycle at Oxford Lieder Festival

Joseph Middleton, Carolyn Sampson - Oxford Lieder Festival 2020 (Photo taken from live stream)
Joseph Middleton, Carolyn Sampson - Oxford Lieder Festival 2020
(Photo taken from live stream)

Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Schubert, Satie, Poldowski, Walton; Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton; Oxford Lieder Festival at Holywell Music Room

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2020
A striking new song-cycle inspired by a gothic novel alongside Schubert and side-long glances at French song

The advantage of the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival is that if you miss an event, it is still there on-line to be sampled later. This means, that last night I was finally able to listen to soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton's 13 October 2020 recital at the Holywell Music Room, where they premiered Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Six Songs of Melmoth commissioned by the festival as part of Frances-Hoad's residency. Alongside the new cycle, Sampson and Middleton performed songs by Schubert, Satie, Poldowski and Walton.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad and librettist Sophie Rashbrook describe Six Songs of Melmoth as 'a musical matryoshka', referencing the nested Russian dolls. The cycle is inspired by Charles Maturin's 1820 gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer and, as with other classic novels in the gothic genre, Maturin's story is an embedded series of layers of apparently independent stories which in fact each shed light on an aspect of Melmoth, a classic figure, condemned to wander the Earth for all time. Frances-Hoad and Rashbrook also mine Sarah Parry's 2018 novel, Melmoth. The resulting song-cycle neatly solves the problem of the narrative song cycle, where it is fatally easy to fall into the trap of creating an opera by default. Frances-Hoad and Rashbrook have written six songs which add up to a story, but because they are written from different points of view and different time periods, it is up to the listener to piece it together. And only in the last song do we hear the voice of Melmoth themself (in the song-cycle they are a character of fluid gender, like Virginia Woolf's Orlando).

We begin in 1816 with a narrator figure who is regaled about Melmoth, and sees his footprints, we then have an old woman trying to sell the narrator a putative letter from Melmoth's fiancée, purporting to describe the way he was  seduced into selling his soul, then follows another letter this time the fiancée describing how she was not seduced by the same voice. Further narrative, describes the wandering Melmoth's encounter with the strange City of Song-Ghosts where he finds a woman prepared to take his place, thus freeing him. The final song, taking place in the present day, with Melmoth themself describing their life as a singer of sorrows.

It is a fascinating narrative, and Frances-Hoad has written music which takes advantage of the various layers, view points and emotions that her text presents her. The narrative sections are written in a sort of expressive arioso with dramatic gestures in the piano to create an intriguing atmosphere. The story telling from Carolyn Sampson was vivid, from the old crone in the second song to the fiancée in the third. Frances-Hoad's vocal writing is expressive and intriguing, yet clearly designed to suit Sampson's voice and often Frances-Hoad reserves the most complex gestures for the piano, leaving the voice to be lyrically expressive. Yet this is never easy music, and it is certainly not an easy subject; there is a sense of compression to the whole work which is challenging. But Frances-Hoad writes some wonderfully eerie moments of the City of Song-Ghosts and the dialogue between Melmoth and the woman who is willing to take his place is wonderfully strange. And the final song, with its presentation of Melmoth's own point of view, means that the cycle ended with strong drama.

Sampson and Middleton began the recital with five songs by Schubert, Schwestergruss (D762), Die Sterne (D939), Gott im Frühlinge (D448),  Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen (D343), Elysium (D584)  each of which treated, in some way, a sense of the sacred. Sampson's performances ranged from engaging freshness to radiant intensity, and always we were are of her face and her expressive eyes. This was a performance which had to be seen as well as heard. Beauty of line and tone were clearly important, and sometimes I felt that these took priority over the words and I would have liked her to make more of the words. She was finely partnered by Joseph Middleton, whose playing moved from the dancing rhtymns of Die Sterne to the radiant drama of Elysium.

For the second half we moved to French song, albeit seen with a somewhat cocked eye. The first group was all by Eric Satie, starting with his piano solo, Gymnopédie 1 to which Middleton brought a real sense of the underlying dance rhythm of the piece. Then came Les anges, with its slow, seductive vocals over almost a chorale in the piano, Le chapelier, with its crazy evocation of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party (!), with an accompaniment with parodies a Gounod song (and the result is dedicated to Stravinsky), and finally Je te veux, the delightful music-hall song which is far more sophisticated than can appear, and this was a performance which did indeed take the fun seriously.

We then moved on to Poldowski, the Polish pseudonym for the Belgian Régine Wieniawski (1879-1932) who was the daughter of the violin virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski and who became wife of the English gentleman, Sir Aubrey Dean Paul, Bart (intriguingly, their two children were both notable Bright Young Things). This group of songs set poems by Verlaine, giving us a rather intriguing side-glance into texts best known from settings by Gabriel Faure (1845-1924). We heard Cythère, En Sourdine, Colombine, L'heure exquise, and Mandoline. Songs which seemed to move between a generation older than Poldowski, and one younger, between Faure and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). By turns languorous, perky and evocative, with the stylishly delightful Mandoline to finish, with its striking mandolin effect in the piano.

Now, here I have to make a confession, I have never thought that William Walton's songs from Facade are a patch on the originals with narrator, somehow transferring the words to vocal lines sung by a lyric soprano rather sweetens them and the songs lose their edge. Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton finished their set with three of Walton's Facade songs, Daphne which comes from Walton's Facade II, Through Gilded Trellises and Old Sir Faulk. Sampson caught the exoticism required, particularly in the second song, whilst Middleton had a field-day with Walton's lively and complex rhythms.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • A song is a song is a song: composer Errollyn Wallen on her multi-faceted career and her forthcoming EP with King's College Choir  - interview
  • From early Schubert to late Geoffry Bush: Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival - concert review
  • Author of Light: The Sixteen in an engaging and uplifting programme of Tudor music at Temple Church - concert review
  • Glyndebourne's outdoor Offenbach comes indoors with a terrific ensemble cast - opera review
  • Their job is to be advocates for the music: Rakhi Singh of Manchester Collective on the group's recent EP Recreation  - interview
  • Rarity & intensity: Ermonela Jaho's debut recital, Anima Rara, explores repertoire associated with her great predecessor Rosina Storchio - CD review
  • Intimacy, grandeur, a new work and a new edition: Purcell odes and more from the English Concert - concert review
  • Haydn, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky from the Mithras Trio at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Illuminating with wit what it is to be an accompanist: Helmut Deutsch's memoirs translated by Richard Stokes  - book review
  • Bach, contentment and our perception of time: the OAE and Dr Fay Dowker at Kings Place  - concert review
  • The Passing of the Year: Voces8 in Jonathan Dove and Alec Roth at Kings Place - concert review
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