Sunday 5 September 2021

A sequence of vivid characters: William Walton's A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table alongside Puccini, Verdi and Finzi in a superb recital from Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper

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

Finzi, Puccini, Verdi, Walton; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 September 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Songs by two opera composers whose work she is associated with complemented by song cycles from Finzi and Walton in this vivid recital from Elizabeth Llewellyn

Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn returned to Wigmore Hall on Friday 3 September 2020 [see my review of her 2020 Wigmore Hall debut] with pianist Simon Lepper for an intriguing programme that combined songs by Puccini and Verdi (two composers with whose operas Llewellyn is very much associated) with William Walton's A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table and Gerald Finzi's Till Earth Outwears.

Finzi's cycle, setting poetry by Thomas Hardy, was created after Finzi's death (in 1956) by his executors (including his friend, the composer Howard Ferguson) from songs written between 1927 and 1956. There is no narrative, just a series of atmospheres; Hardy's view of the interaction between man and nature which chimed with Finzi's own. Llewellyn sang with wonderfully burnished tone, relishing the way Finzi's music flows around Hardy's texts. 

In the first couple of songs, 'Let me enjoy the earth' and 'In years defaced', the lyric melancholy of Finzi's music modified Hardy's bleakness, but in the delightfully upbeat, 'The Market-Girl', we had a charming fast-flowing tale. 'I look into my glass' was downbeat yet affecting, whilst I have to confess to wondering what 'it never looks like summer here' was actually about. The highly philosophical 'At a Lunar Eclipse' was very striking and we ended somewhat downbeat with 'Life laughs onward'.

The latest of Giacomo Puccini's songs in the recital, Morire? dates from around 1917-1918, just ten years before the earliest of Finzi's, yet the two exist in a vastly different sound-world. Puccini's songs seem to be not so much finished forms as fragments of ideas which he would continue to work on. And in fact several of those performed by Llewellyn and Lepper were reworked into La Boheme and La Rondine. But they still formed little gems in their own right.

In Morire? (1917-1918) we could hear the way Puccini would pull apart the text and set it against the melodic flow of the music, to striking effect (something which occurs regularly in his operas). The same was true of the lyrically flowing Terra e mare (1902) and of course the delightful Sole e amore (1888) reappeared in Act Three of La Boheme.

By contrast Ad una morta (1883) was almost an operatic scene in its own right. Sogno d'or (1913) was beautifully touching and we finished with the remarkably perky lullaby, E l'uccellino (1899), which was composed for the baby son of a friend who had died just before the baby was born, and then the radiant canto d'anime (1904), which was commissioned by the man responsible for Caruso's 1902 Milan Grand Hotel recordings.

Llewellyn and Lepper never tried to convince us we were listening to opera, these were songs in their own right, all sung with fabulous flexible phrasing and radiant tone.

After the interval it was the turn of Verdi. He published two early sets of songs in 1838 (the year before his first opera Oberto) and 1845 (the year of Giovanna d'Arco), designed to bring the young composer to the fore. We began in 1869, with Stornello which was written for an album for the benefit of librettist Piave who had suffered from a stroke. This song proved to be full of character and vivid drama, with a busy piano part which certainly did not see Verdi taking the easy way out.

The darkly intense Perduta ho la Pace (from his first published set of songs in 1838) set an Italian version of a poem by Goethe and it brought to mind not just several of Verdi's dramatic heroines but also Azucena from Verdi's Il trovatore (1853). Ad una stella (from second set of songs in 1845) began quite straightforwardly but developed into darker drama with Llewellyn evincing a fine combination of power and control at the end. We ended the Verdi group with La zingara (also from the 1845 set) which had a dazzling cabaletta-ish feel, with Llewellyn really embodying the gypsy of the title, with vibrant tone and a smile in her voice, superbly supported by Lepper.

I have to confess that, in the past, William Walton's 1962 song cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table (commissioned by the City of London Festival and premiered by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore) has elicited admiration rather then love or keen enjoyment. But Llewellyn and Lepper's virtuoso and brilliantly characterised performance brought out the work's strengths with, perhaps, an emphasis on how much Walton the song composer was linked to Walton the opera composer.

'The Lord Mayor's Table' was brilliant in voice and piano, full of vivid energy, whilst 'Glide gently' was considered, sung with dark, covered tone. 'Wapping Old Stairs' was simply terrific, full of dramatic character, sung by Llewellyn with apposite accent and forming a characterful sketch with Llewellyn using both her voice and her expressive face. 'Holy Thursday' was touching, the expressive control in the vocal line contrasting with the complex drama in the piano. 'The Contrast' again brought out vivid expressiveness of Llewellyn's performance, complete with flashing eyes. And we ended with the vivid brilliance of 'Rhyme'. Throughout the cycle, Llewellyn was deftly partnered by Lepper, who helped create the sequence of vibrant colours and characters. 

On this showing, you can't help thinking that someone ought to ask Llewellyn to take on the role of Cressida in the original soprano version of Walton's opera, Troilus and Cressida. Here's hoping!

The audience gave Llewellyn and Lepper a superbly warm response and we were treated to two encores, first a Coleridge Taylor song, Life and Death, which as Llewellyn suggested has a very 1930s feel to it (though Coleridge Taylor died in 1912), and the Stanford's A Soft Day, the first song that Llewellyn learned at music college!

The concert was also live-streamed by Wigmore Hall and is available on the hall's website.

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