Tuesday 23 February 2021

I wonder as I wander: baritone James Newby in a stunning debut recital with Joseph Middleton

I wonder as I wander - Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Britten; James Newby, Joseph Middleton; BIS

I wonder as I wander
- Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Britten; James Newby, Joseph Middleton; BIS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 February 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An exploration of the wanderer's constant sense of longing in this stunning debut recital

The figure of the wanderer, constantly in search of something, is at the centre of baritone James Newby and pianist Joseph Middleton's disc, I wonder as a wander, on BIS. The centrepiece of the recital is Beethoven's song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, surrounded by songs by Schubert and Mahler, along with Britten's folk-song arrangements. The Beethoven cycle was the starting point for the programme, and there is a personal element too, Newby is currently a wanderer himself, away from his native land as an member of the ensemble at Staatsoper Hannover.

We open with two Britten arrangements, beautifully intimate, almost hushed accounts of I wonder as I wonder and There's none to soothe. These are very interior, highly personal performances, and this sense continues with Schubert's Der Wanderer, D 489 which starts quiet and dark, but intimate. Not that Newby and Middleton eschew drama, but at first it seems as if the wanderer cannot sustain these outburts for long, until the thrilling penultimate verse. Der Wanderer, D 469 is thoughtful and considered, not for this wanderer the sense of swagger and striding onwards. In Auf der Donau, voice and piano flow onward, disturbed by what the wanderer sees but constantly in motion. Im Freien again has that flowing sense, with Newby's thoughtful singer supported by the endless piano. Abendstern is hushed and profoundly musical, an intimate performance hinting us eavesdropping on just the wanderer and the star.

The Beethoven group begins with his best-known song, Adelaide. Newby and Middleton make the piece rather haunting, or perhaps a sense of the wanderer being haunted by his beloved. Despite the form of the poem, Beethoven eschews a strophic setting and the performers take full advantage of this to give full character to the song. Maigesang begins all engagingly vital, a celebration of May, developing into something rather ardent.

An die ferne Geliebte begins with the wanderer sitting on a hill, thoughtful and intimate, but more ardent, impulsive feelings keep pushing through only to die down, but ending rather bitterly. The second song, with its haunting refrain, continues the mood as Newby's voice takes on a lovely glow in the quieter passages. This is young man who is truly haunted by his beloved. The bright clouds in the third song have a bitter, almost sarcastic edge to them, whilst the fourth song lightens the mood delightfully. The fifth song is all light anticipation, as the wanderer pictures his beloved but by the end we realise that there is no hope, and for all the final song's melodic felicity we are in the realm of sadness and youthful melancholy with Newby fining his voice right down so that he and Middleton create something magical, until the final pages when the repetition of 'Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!' creates something intense and obsessive.

There is a sense of soldierly swagger to Mahler's Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz' but Newby and Middleton take the song steadily, and give it a thoughtful intensity which is almost operatic, really taking us into the mind of the doomed soldier. The performance manages to be at the same time profound, beautiful and disturbing. We are back with swaggering soldiers for Revelge, with the strangeness of the song gradually taking over with a terrific performance from Middleton and Newby really spitting out the words. The final Mahler song moves us into a different work, from the hectic intensity of the dead soldiers, we move to the mystical intentness of Urlicht.

Finally, the recital is rounded off with three more of Britten's folk-song arrangements, continuing the intimate, almost mystical world of the Mahler. Newby and Middleton treat these songs as Britten did, as art songs to be recreated today rather than emulating earlier folk-inspired performances. The two bring a remarkable combination of intensity and bitterness to The Last Rose of Summer, making me see the song in a completely new light, whilst Sail on finishes the recital with compelling simplicity and quietness.

James Newby
James Newby

What impresses about these performances is Newby's attention to detail. He does not fear singing quietly and his mezza-voce his profoundly beautiful, but this is used in the service of the music bringing out
the many subtleties, never have I heard such lovely singing sound so disturbing. His diction is also very fine, showing that a lovely sense of line does not preclude bringing out the words. The whole gives a real immediacy to Newby's performance and throughout, he is sensitively partnered by Middleton, so that from first to last the recital is imbued with a common sense of purpose, a feeling of haunted restlessness and intense longing.

Traditional, arr. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - I wonder as I wander
Traditional, arr. Benjamin Britten - There’s none to soothe
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Der Wanderer, D 489
Franz Schubert - Der Wanderer, D 649
Franz Schubert - Auf der Donau, D 553
Franz Schubert - Im Freien, D 880
Franz Schubert - Abendstern, D 806
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Adelaide, Op. 46
Ludwig van Beethoven - Maigesang, Op. 52 No. 4
Ludwig van Beethoven - An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz
Gustav Mahler - Revelge
Gustav Mahler - Urlicht
Traditional, arr. Benjamin Britten - At the mid hour of night (Molly, my Dear)
Traditional, arr. Benjamin Britten - The last rose of summer (Groves of blarney)
Traditional, arr. Benjamin Britten - Sail on, sail on (The humming of the ban).
James Newby (baritone)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, October 2019
BIS BIS-2475 1 SACD [75.26]

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