Thursday 4 May 2023

Temple Song: Kate Royal, Christine Rice & Julius Drake in Brahms, Schumann and Weill

Middle Temple Hall in its wisteria (Photo courtesy of Julius Drake)
Middle Temple Hall in its wisteria
(Photo courtesy of Julius Drake)
Brahms: Zigeunerlieder, duets by Brahms and Schumann, songs by Kurt Weill; Kate Royal, Christine Rice, Julius Drake; Temple Song at Middle Temple Hall

From Brahms in exuberant gypsy mode, to intimate duets from Brahms and Schumann, to Kurt Weill demonstrating his brilliant versatility

The Temple Music Foundation's Temple Song returned to Middle Temple Hall on Tuesday 2 May 2023 with its first song recital of 2023. Pianist Julius Drake was joined by soprano Kate Royal and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice for a programme of songs and duets by Brahms, Schumann and Kurt Weill.

We began with Brahms' Zigeuner Lieder. These were originally written in 1888 as a cycle for quartet and piano, setting German translations of Hungarian folk songs. Such was the work's popularity that Brahms recast eight songs for solo voice, the version we heard at Middle Temple Hall. The music is only vaguely Hungarian, belonging to the category of 19th-century composers appropriating the styles of the Hungarian gypsy musicians who could be found in Vienna. Brahms ate regularly at the Gasthaus Zum Roten Igel where gypsy musicians could usually be heard. In its original format, Zigeuner Lieder's lively exuberance proved popular, hence Brahms' recasting for solo voice. 

Royal and Rice largely alternated songs, though in some they took alternate stanzas and created duet versions of some choruses. As you might expect, the texts were all about love, loss and temptation. The result was full vibrant performances, both singers made strong impressions, creating a sense of vivid character, though there was gentle melancholy too, culminating in Rice's touching account of the seventh song. Whilst there were Hungarian touches, including a finely rhythmic czardas from Rice in the fifth song, the overall impression was of the vivid hues of the music.

The duet form was popular in the 19th century and it was very much designed for the domestic market, though none of this music had any sense of writing down. Royal, Rice and Drake began with four of Brahms' duets. Die Schwestern was a perky delight, full of great character until the wry twist at the end. Die Meere was gentle and languid, indeed almost a barcarolle, whilst Phänomen began with strong vocal lines over flowing piano but developed some rather interesting canonic writing in the middle. This group ended with the wonderfully characterful Walpurgisnacht with Rice as the witch mother and Royal as the curious daughter. The song went past vividly, gradually gaining momentum till the terrific big reveal, from Rice, at the end.

Robert Schumann wrote a considerable number of duets, hardly surprising perhaps when you consider his musical and intimate partnership with Clara Schumann. This group began with Herbstlied, gentle and peaceful at first with an underlying melancholy, but more vivid at the words affirming that love was sure to return. Erste Begegnung, from Schumann's Spanisches Liederspiel, was rather perky with a lovely slyness to it as the young woman described exactly what she got up to at the river bank! Sommerruh was all gentle beauty whilst In der Nacht, again from the Spanisches Liederspiel seemed to reflect Schumann's interest in Bach as the opening combined a rather Bachian accompaniment with chorale-like vocals. The second voice only joined in quite late, heightening the intensity of the piece. A terrific performance all round.

We finished with a group of Kurt Weill songs spanning his periods in Berlin, Paris and New York. First Berlin im Licht, to a text by Brecht, written for a festival of the same name in 1928. Rice made it full of character with a lovely emphasis on the words. Royal was richly seductive in the tango, Youkali, with a lovely sparkle in her eye. There was a touch of the exotic too, with Royal not being afraid to let out her inner drama queen. Nannas Lied, written in 1939 as a Christmas present for Lotte Lenya, set an earlier text by Brecht. Rice began in finely world-weary manner, but her profoundly expressive performance developed real drama and intensity.

Buddy on the Nightshift sets a text by Oscar Hammerstein, an intriguing combination of American musical theatre greats. Royal's engaging performance was full of vivid rhythms and great text. Es regnet featured the curiosity of lyrics written in German by Jean Cocteau. Christine Rice's performance was touching, full of gentle melancholy at first before mining deeper emotions. Kate Royal in wonderful chanteuse mode for Je ne t'aime pas, full of concentrated passion and great style.

We ended both Royal and Rice in Alabama Song from Weill and Brecht's Mahagonny, in a performance that combined wit, great words and vivid presence. There was, however, an encore, one more song from Weill's Broadway period, One Life to Live from Lady in the Dark.

Throughout, Julius Drake partnered the singers with aplomb moving stylishly from Brahms in gypsy mode, to Schumann to Weill at his most Berlin-inspired.

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