Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Not just a fine debut recital: Julian Van Mellaerts & James Baillieu are joined by family & friends for their exploration of Songs of Travel and Home on Champs Hill Records

Songs of travel and home - Quilter, Bridge, Gareth Farr, Ravel, RVW; Julien Van Mellaerts, James Baillieu, Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Sofia Castillo, Raphael Wallfisch; Champs Hill Records

Songs of travel and home
- Quilter, Bridge, Gareth Farr, Ravel, RVW; Julien Van Mellaerts, James Baillieu, Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Sofia Castillo, Raphael Wallfisch; Champs Hill Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A debut recital which explores baritone Julien Van Mellaerts' diverse origins, what home means and explores identity through song

For a young artist, the question of programming their debut recital disc is a large one, the balance between making something personal and making something which forms a musically satisfying whole. For his debut recital on Champs Hill Records, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts is joined by pianist James Baillieu, viola player Bryony Gibson-Cornish, flute player Sofia Castillo and cellist Raphael Wallfisch for a programme of music by Roger Quilter, Frank Bridge, Gareth Farr, Maurice Ravel and RVW.

If the programme seems, at first, somewhat diverse, then Van Mellaerts explains in his introductory note how all the pieces link to his own diverse origins. Born in New Zealand, his mother's family has been in the country since the 1840s, but his half British/half French father immigrated in the 1970s. So, in a way, the programme explores the idea of identity through song.

There are other links too, viola player Bryony Gibson-Cornish is a friend of Van Mellaerts from 'back home' and they performed Frank Bridge's songs for voice, viola and piano together when studying at the Royal College of Music. The song cycle Ornithological Anecdotes was commissioned by Van Mellaerts and Baillieu for a tour of New Zealand with words by the country's first poet laureate, Bill Manhire, and music by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr [see my review of a recent disc of Farr's Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames]. And the cycle examines some of the unusual birds which are unique to the country. Van Mellaerts is not only part French, but did his university dissertation on Ravel, and the Chansons madécasses gives him a rare chance to perform with his partner, flute player Sofia Castillo, as well as cellist Raphael Wallfisch with whom Van Mellaerts worked in 2018 for the Royal Ballet.

The whole would not work if it were not for Van Mellaerts superb performances, aided and abetted by Baillieu and the others. He sings with an engagingly firm sense of line along with a lovely flexibility and admirable freedom in the upper repertoire, plus superb diction so that you never have to worry about checking the words. 

We begin with Roger Quilter's Go lovely rose, in a performance which brings out the poetry and the way Quilter's music respects it. Then comes a trio of wonderfully passionate Bridge songs with viola player Bryony Gibson-Cornish. I have heard these in their version for mezzo-soprano but Van Mellaerts is finely convincing in this version for baritone, viola and piano. Gibson-Cornish's viola is warmly plangent and having a male voice creates an interesting relationship between voice and instrument. The first song is intense, questing and restless, whilst the second moves from thoughtful poeticism to real power. We end with the flowing Heine translation, the performers creating a sense of real chamber music. Another Quilter song, Now sleeps the crimson petal comes next, full of the virtues of the first Quilter song and making you think that someone needs to ask Van Mellaerts and Baillieu to explore this repertoire properly on disc.

Gareth Farr's Ornithological Anecdotes sets five poems by Bill Manhire, each poem describing a particular and rather odd New Zealand bird. Farr's music is imaginative with a variety of interesting textures in the songs, and it sounds as if it is quite singer-friendly. 'Dotterel' creates an intriguing atmosphere, describing a bird that pretends to be injured to lure predators away form the nest. 'Takahe' is a flightless bird that was thought to be extinct, but the last remaining dozen or so were discovered in the late 1940s and it has become something of a conservation success. The song is one with voice over a quasi-ground-bass in the piano, and the words and music really draw you in. 'Huia' is a bird which is now extinct and so little is known about it that there isn't even a recording of its call. The song is rather intense and brings out the rather pointed words. 'Kiwi' is, of course, the best known and the performers bring out the wit and the swagger in the song. Finally the delightfully characterful 'Tui' which has the singer mainly speaking in rhythm over and imaginative piano part.

From here we move to Ravel's Chansons madécasses, where Ravel sets poems by the 18th century poet, Évariste de Parny, which the poet claimed were translations from original Madegascan verse. Ravel's settings use an accompaniment of flute (Sofia Castillo), cello (Raphael Wallfisch) and piano (James Baillieu) to create a really atmospheric setting for the words, which are prose poems. 'Nahandove' introduces us to Van Mellaerts' rather seductive manner in these songs, complimented by Wallfisch's warm, high cello. Words are prime here, with the performers making the music flow according the text, the voice surrounded by the instruments. And for all the pleasure described in the first song, there is an underlying melancholy. 'Aoua!' is intense, with an opening that cuts like a knife leading to a striking performance which has a sense of steadily pressing forward to an intense, insistent climax. Finally, the flute, cello harmonics and piano set the eerie atmosphere for 'Il est doux'. The almost incantatory vocal line brings out the narrative, but the instruments give it an uncertain atmosphere.

Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée was a trio of songs from a project for a film, but Ravel's failed to deliver them in time and the trio has become a concert standard. Baillieu brings out the engaging Spanish sense in the opening song, complementing Van Mellaert's mellifluous vocal line. The second song is darkly atmospheric, with a sense of slow build, whilst the final one combines the Spanish atmosphere with a swaggering approach and a bit of humour.

Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife and their household in Vailima, Samoa, c. 1892
Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife and their household in Vailima, Samoa, c. 1892

Robert Louis Stevenson's Songs of Travel were published posthumously in 1896 and were written largely in the South Seas where Stevenson had settled. RVW chose nine of them to set, and despite Stevenson's original setting, RVW's songs give the impression of an English vagabond indeed. There are many ways to approach these songs and the story they tell, here was have very much a young man's performance. For all the steady tread in the music, 'The vagabond' is full of a sense of anticipation for what is to come. Throughout the cycle, I appreciated Van Mellaerts' attention to the sense of line and to the poetry, with both him and Baillieu giving a performance full of lovely details. 'Let beauty awake' has great beauty of tone, but real engagement too, whilst the curiously sexist 'The roadside fire' [try singing the words 'And you shall wash your linen and keep body white' with a straight face with your wife/girl friend in the audience] is full of delicacy. 'Youth and love' is thoughtful, but grows in power, then 'In dreams' leads us to the more mystical side of the cycle. Van Mellaerts' vagabond is, perhaps, more down to earth than some, but he and Baillieu give us some gloriously magical moments, so 'The infinite shining heavens' is full of practical mysticism. 'Whither must I wander?' is full of a very poetic melancholy, and the opening swagger of 'Bright is the ring of words' quickly unwinds, leaving to the finely poetic final song.

This is not just a fine debut recital, but is one of those programmes which manage to be engaging not just because of the performers' musicality but also because they seem to enjoying the music so much. There is real personality here, for all the beauty of Van Mellaerts' voice, he makes us listen to the music and the poetry with Baillieu forming a superb comrade on the journey, and the CD has a lovely image of the two of them on the back, t-shirts, shorts, broad grins, standing on rock in a New Zealand landscape.

Songs of travel and home - Quilter, Bridge, Gareth Farr, Ravel, RVW; Julien Van Mellaerts, James Baillieu, Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Sofia Castillo, Raphael Wallfisch; Champs Hill Records

Songs of Travel and Home
Roger Quilter - Go, lovely rose
Frank Bridge - Three songs for medium voice, viola and piano
Roger Quilter - Now sleeps the crimson petal
Gareth Farr - Ornithological Anecdotes
Maurice Ravel - Chansons madécasses 
Maurice Ravel - Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Songs of Travel

Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)
James Baillieu (piano)
Sofia Castillo (flute)
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Recorded 10-13 November 2020, Music Room, Champs Hill,
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD164 1CD [70:00]






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