Tuesday 18 October 2022

Coleridge-Taylor & Friends: Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Coleridge-Taylor & Friends: Coleridge-Taylor, Puccini, Stanford, Brahms; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Holywell Music Room
Coleridge-Taylor & Friends: Coleridge-Taylor, Puccini, Stanford, Brahms; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Holywell Music Room
Reviewed 17 October 2022 (★★★★)

Making her festival debut, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn places Coleridge-Taylor's songs alongside those of his contemporaries in an engaging and illuminating lunchtime recital 

The 2022 Oxford Lieder Festival is in full swing with the overarching theme of Friendship in Song: an intimate art. I went along on Monday 17 October 2022 for a day that began for me with soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper's lunchtime recital at the Holywell Music Room, placing the songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor alongside those of his teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford, contemporaries whom he admired, Brahms and Puccini.

Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper began and ended with songs by Coleridge-Taylor, whilst in the middle we hear songs by Puccini, whom Coleridge-Taylor admired for his sense of colour, Stanford who was Coleridge-Taylor's teacher, and Brahms whom Coleridge-Taylor regarded as a revolutionary and who was a significant influence on older English composers like Stanford and Parry.

They began with three of Coleridge-Taylor's Six Songs, Op. 37, published in 1899 and despite the opus number, still quite early in the composer's career. The three, 'Eleanore', 'You'll love me yet!' and 'Canoe Song', showcased Coleridge-Taylor's gift for memorable melodies whose outlines were often akin to the sort of parlour ballads popular at the time, yet with far more a complex consideration when it came to structure and accompaniment, chromatic and romantic with Llewellyn spinning a fabulously bright, supple line over the piano. The next three songs were slightly earlier, Southern Love Songs, Op. 12 dates from 1896 (an indication of quite how prolific the composer was) and we heard 'Minguillo', 'If thou art sleeping', and 'Tears', moving from seductive wit to intimate waltz and ending with lyric melancholy.

Puccini wrote songs throughout his life, though the majority date from his early years. They vary between works written for particular circumstances and those that can seem like sketches for something bigger. And Llewellyn and Lepper's selection included one whose melody reoccurred in Act Three of La Boheme and another whose turned up in La Rondine. These are works that place the voice and the melody firmly to the fore with the piano simply as support. Llewellyn certainly did not disappoint and she sang with generous tone and a supple, well-filled line, treading the fine line between the intimate song and the operatic.

Morire is one of Puccini's last songs, dating from around 1917 with the melody reused in La Rondine, but there is plenty to enjoy on its own. Sole e Amore (with its pre-echoes of La Boheme) was charming whilst Terra e Mare (from 1902, between Tosca and Madama Butterfly) seemed more complex, more developed as a song. E l'uccellino (from 1899, between La Boheme and Tosca) managed to combine charm with melancholy and we ended this group with the rather striking Ad una morta (from 1883, which dates from before Le Villi) which featured another terrific tune.

Stanford's songs still have not got the attention that perhaps they deserve. Llewellyn and Lepper gave us three from his 1914 collection,  A sheaf of songs from Leinster setting poems by Winifred Mary Letts. 'Grandeur' was a long narrative poem that successfully avoided being strophic yet was full of melodic interest. Llewellyn brought out the song's touching moments and sang the sting in the tail completely dead-pan. 'A soft day' is perhaps the best-known of the group. Lyrical without a really big tune, Llewellyn and Lepper made the music seem naturally shaped to the words, and we ended with vivid brilliance and humour of The Bold Unbiddable Child.

Next came three songs from Brahms' Fünf Lieder Op. 105 which date from the late 1880s and are very much towards the end of his song-writing career. Published in 1888, they would surely have been regarded as still relatively new during Coleridge-Taylor's student days (he started at the Royal College of Music in 1890 at the age of fifteen). We began with the expressively melodic Wie melodien, then the lyric melancholy of Immer leise wird mein Schlummer and finally the wonderful romantic sweep of Am dem Kirchhofe.

The final group of Coleridge-Taylor songs began with A Lament, setting words by Christina Rossetti, a haunting song with hints of Grieg in the freedom of the melody line. This sense of Grieg's influence continued with A King there lived in Thule from Coleridge-Taylor's 1908 incidental music to Faust. A lovely, strophic song, it rather brought to mind one of Grieg's lyric pieces.

We ended with three of his Songs of Sun and Shade, settings of poetry by Marguerite Radclyffe Hall published in 1911. Coleridge-Taylor seems to have been rather fond of setting poems by women composers; Radclyffe Hall's poems are relatively early and whether Coleridge-Taylor would have had any inkling of her reputation is unclear (her novel, The Well of Loneliness dates from 1928), but the poems are all unspecific as to genders. There was a complex, romantic sweep to much of the music, the memorable melodies, the interesting approach to harmony and rhythms, the freedom and the variety, ending with the engaging waltz of Thou has bewitched me.

There was an encore, Coleridge-Taylor's wonderfully heart-on-sleeve, Life and Death.


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