Friday 6 January 2023

Other Love Songs: The songs of Stephen Hough at Wigmore Hall with James Newby, Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy, Ailish Tynan

Stephen Hough, Alisdair Hogarth, James Newby, Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy, Ailish Tynan at Wigmore Hall (taken from live stream)
Stephen Hough, Alisdair Hogarth, James Newby, Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy, Ailish Tynan at Wigmore Hall (taken from live stream)

As a composer, Stephen Hough's work has perhaps not gained the spotlight the way his work as a performer has, but I have long been aware of Hough's impressive parallel career. On Monday 2 January 2023, there was a chance to really explore Hough the composer as Wigmore Hall brought together five of Hough's song cycles, including the premiere of Songs of Love and Loss. A fine quartet of singers took part, Jess Dandy (standing in at short notice for Ema Nikolovska), Ailish Tynan, James Newby and Nicky Spence. Hough himself accompanied, and was joined at the piano by Alisdair Hogarth for Other Love Songs which was written as a pendant to Brahms Liebesliederwalzer.

The song cycles spanned a significant period of time from Herbeslieder of 2007 to Songs of Love and Loss and Lady Antonia's Songs from 2021. All displayed clear elements of Hough's style. Complex piano writing, for a start, with the piano as a highly expressive partner to the voice. Influences seemed to range widely, but 20th-century European composers loomed large, along with that of Britten (another British composer with Continental roots). But Hough has a way of putting on style as an expressive device; the voice was always his, but the manner changed, whether this was early 20th-century European writing for his Rilke settings in Herbstlieder, or evoking jazz or Noel Coward in other places. And Britten's example of bringing complexity to the cabaret style seemed to have been well-learned too.

His choice of poets was wide-ranging and eclectic. Herbstlieder set Rilke (in German). Lady Antonia's Songs set poetry by Lady Antonia Fraser. Dappled Things combined poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde. Songs of Love and Loss used poetry by W.B.Yeats and three of Hough's friends, Andrew Ball, Tom Vaughan, Jonathan Galassi, plus Hough's own words. Other Love Songs mixesdClaude McKay, Hildegard of Bingen, Langston Hughes, Laurence Hope, A.E. Housman, the Bible and the Latin liturgy.

We began with Herbstlieder, settings of Rilke's poetry sung by Jess Dandy. Dark, rather expressionist, richly chromatic piano writing and plangent vocal lines built towards a bleak, intense experience that seemed to recall tonally complex European composers of the early to mid-20th century. Hough's writing throughout the evening was always singer friendly, expressive and tonal though complex, and he does not really write memorable tunes. Lady Antonia's Songs set four poems by Lady Antonia Fraser, here sung by Ailish Tynan. These four were very much about the words, the wry tone of the poet and Tynan really brought that out, relishing the cabaret element Hough introduced in one song, yet ending the cycle with a beautifully haunted sound world.

James Newby sang Dappled Things, a 2014 song-cycle that mixes highly serious, dark sonnets by Gerard Manley Hopkins with more skittish poetry by Oscar Wilde. The Wilde poems varied enormously, Requiescat being a tender poem about the poet's sister dying young, Easter Day about the pomp of a papal Easter ceremony and The Harlot's House, a strange parable of innocence corrupted. I have to confess that I did not really 'get' this cycle. It was superbly sung by James Newby, who seemed to identify strongly with each song. Yet, though impressed and sometimes moved by individual songs, I was not clear what the cycle built to, but then I have to confess to always having had a problem with Hopkins' poetry. Yet there is an unspoken link between the two, as both poets were struggling with suppressed homo-erotic impulses.

The most recent cycle, and a Wigmore Hall commission, was Songs of Love and Loss, sung by Nicky Spence. The choice of poetry in this cycle and Other Love Songs rather suggests that Hough takes a wry, perhaps jaundiced view of love. Songs of Love and Loss began with W.B. Yeats' O Do Not Love Too Long, given a rather conversational treatment with highly romantic piano undertones. A wry, more cabaret style underpinned Andrew Ball's delightfully tart poetry - 'quite honestly/if I wanted red hot sex/I would be looking a someone/my own age'. Not words you hear sung at the Wigmore Hall very often. The setting of Peter Halstead's Barcarolle was evocative, Debussy-influenced with the hint that perhaps the piano part was far more interesting than the voice. With Jonathan Galassi's Radical Hope we moved definitely into Noel Coward territory, though as the poet became more desperate, Hough's music grew in intensity and finally unwound. His own One Night was richly romantic, yet took rather a sedate approach to a description of a one-night stand. Tom Vaughan's Beltway Blues was pure Britten cabaret, and we ended with W.B. Yeats' When You Are Old. Not a comfortable finish to a cycle that certainly did not take an easy view of love. Throughout Nicky Spence brought out the best in each of the songs, relishing the stylistic twists and turns, whilst always giving us a superb approach to the words.

Other Love Songs was written as a companion to Brahms' Liebeslieder Walzer, and so uses the same forces - four singers and two pianists. Hough writes a mixture of duets and solos, ending with quartets, yet the work explicitly avoids waltzes and romantic love. Instead, it gives us a wry look at different forms of love. Two poems by Claude McKay evoked love lost and remembered, notably loving a deceased mother, in a bleakly bluesy style for the two male soloists. The two women joined together for a rapturous take on words by Julian of Norwich. We returned to Claude McKay for a richly romantic solo for Nicky Spence, whilst Jess Dandy was wry and pointed in Langston Hughes' Madam and her Madam. Laurence Hope's Kashmiri Love Song, originally set by Amy Woodforde-Finden, became something rather intense, almost tortured, in a solo for Ailish Tynan. James Newby brought dark intensity to Hough's rather serious setting of Housman's Because I liked you better, whilst the same poet's curiously disturbing The colour of his hair was rendered in Oh what a lovely war! music-hall style by all four performers. This parable about the persecution of male homosexuality in Victorian England led directly into a setting of the words from the Bible, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?/You know, Lord, I love you' sung with such a simple directness by Spence and Newby that the homoerotic undertones were loud and clear. Hough finished the cycle, strangely yet effectively, with the two women counterpointing this dialogue with the Agnus Dei.

The evening gave us a superb chance to really dig into Hough's sound-world and his writing for voice, but I did wonder whether a little contrast might have worked, placing Hough's songs in relief. And certainly, I would love to hear Other Love Songs counterpointed with the Brahms' Liebeslieder

Whilst my own compositional style is somewhat different to Hough's and certainly, I cannot approach the sophistication of his piano writing, there were a couple of strange linkages. I too have written a song-cycle called Songs of Love and Loss, albeit with a very different selection of poetry, and I set Housman's Because I liked you better in my own Housman cycle!

The concert was live-streamed and is available on the Wigmore Hall website

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