Saturday 5 December 2020

In the depths of deep despair: James Cleverton and Nigel Foster premiere Iain Bell's song cycle based on Thom Gunn's collection 'The Man with Night Sweats'

Thom Gunn in 1960
Thom Gunn in 1960

- Hugo Wolf, Iain Bell, Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler; James Cleverton, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 December 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
With an audience once again, London Song Festival premieres Iain Bell's darkly dramatic song cycle based on Thom Gunn's poems

Hurrah for a return to live music making! Who knows for how long, but Nigel Foster and the London Song Festival made their concert Liebestod happen live at the Hinde Street Methodist Church on Friday 4 December 2020. The challenges included baritone James Cleverton standing in a relatively short notice when the planned singer was unable to travel due to restrictions. The centrepiece of this challenging concert was the premiere of Iain Bell's new song cycle, The Man with Night Sweats, setting poems by Thom Gunn from the eponymous collection. Around this were placed songs of love and of death, with Hugo Wolf's Michelangelo Lieder, three Heine settings from Schubert's Schwanengesang and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

We began with Wolf's Michelangelo Lieder, setting three German translations of Michelangelo's originals by Walter Heinrich Robert-tornow (1852-1895). Wolf set the songs in 1897, originally writing four and discarding one. After writing them Wolf wrote to a friend 'I'm literally afraid of this composition, because it makes me apprehensive of my own sanity', and six months later he had a mental breakdown as a result of syphilis, tried to commit suicide and was committed to an asylum. These were the last songs he wrote.

They are indeed dark and sombre, the vocal lines quite declamatory. These are not comfortable songs, Wolf uses the questioning tone of Michelangelo's poems to reflect, perhaps, on his own mental troubles. Despite his wonderfully resonant tones, Cleverton did not seek to make the songs easy or comfortable, whether quietly intense or striking climaxes. In the Hinde Street acoustic, Cleverton's baritone was quite large scale, resonant and with fabulous dark tones to it which made the songs darkly disturbed.

The poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was originally associated with other English poets such as Ted Hughes, but Gunn emigrated to the USA to be with his partner. From then on his poetry became increasingly outspoken in its depiction of homosexuality and drug-taking. His 1992 collection The Man with Night Sweats explores issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic. Iain Bell has selected seven poems from the set, fashioning a narrative about a man seeing those around him dying of AIDS, whilst being aware he too was HIV-positive (the man is not Thom Gunn, who remained HIV-negative and died of substance abuse). Bell has created a near-operatic monodrama and during James Cleverton's highly dramatic performance I kept coming back to the idea that the piece would work well as a staging.

Bell creates a consistency of mood throughout the cycle, with a clear dramatic arc from beginning to end and whilst his writing is not conventionally melodic, he writes well for the voice. Much of the vocal writing was arioso-like, strongly declamatory with the piano surrounding it. The piano has a distinct voice to itself in the cycle, rather than supporting the vocal line. In a number of the songs, Bell seemed to be altering the mood by hinting at closed forms, so that Lament I was something of a berceuse. 

Bell successfully negotiated the complexities of setting Gunn's words. Whilst some of the poems (such as the title one) are clear in the lyric form with short line lengths, others (such as Lament I) are wordier and freer presenting both a challenge and a rewarding opportunity for the composer. Cleverton was impressive both in his intense commitment to the piece and also to the way that he projected the words. You hardly needed the programme, and Cleverton projected music and words as a single dramatic unit.

The piano part was not without its complexities, yet Nigel Foster made light of all of these and shaped the flurries of notes brilliantly. 

I have to confess that I found the work's consistently dark, almost harrowing tone, something of a challenge despite the rewards of Bell's music. I think I would have found a little more light amongst the shade (no matter how ironic) somewhat welcome. But this is a striking new cycle, addressing a tragic subject which has not cropped up that often in classical music. 

Cleverton and Foster followed this with three of Schubert's Heine settings from Schwanengesang (a set of songs collected together by Schubert's publisher after the composer's death). We heard 'Die Stadt', 'Ihr Bild', and 'Der Doppelganger', and the performances imbued these dark songs with a consistency of mood which carried over from Bell's cycle. The first had a deeply disturbing atmosphere, whilst the second though more considered was centred on the recollection of strong emotions, and the final song moved from intense and dark to something deeper. Having heard Cleverton in these three songs, I could not help wishing that we could have heard him in the whole of Schubert's Schwanengesang.

The evening finished with Gustav Mahler's 1884-85 song cycle Lieder eines fahrendent Gesellen which sets his own words. First of all, I have to make a confession; I got to know these works with the voice of mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and nearly 50 years later I still find the baritone voice in them something of a surprise. There is a gloominess to the texts, Mahler is writing about lost love and his protagonist can sometimes feel like a bit of a drip, frankly. Cleverton and Foster brought a darkness and sombreness to the performances, moving the voice from mezzo-soprano to baritone makes the protagonist older yet not wiser, and Cleverton's performance was full of an underlying sadness and depression, for all the memorableness of Mahler's musical material. 

This was a deep, dark recital which mined strong feelings and afterwards you felt that you needed a strong drink (in a good way). The concert was being filmed and will be available on the London Song Festival's YouTube channel.

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