Tuesday 12 December 2023

Youthful engagement & Romantic devotion in Claire Ward & JongSun Woo's CMF Lunchtime Recital

Claire Ward at the Tallow Chandlers' Hall for the City Music Foundation
Claire Ward at the Tallow Chandlers' Hall for the City Music Foundation
Devotion - Schumann: Frauen-Liebe und Leben, R. Strauss, Brahms, Alma Mahler, Schoenberg, Faure, Debussy, Britten, Bridge; Claire Ward, JongSun Woo; City Music Foundation at Tallow Chandlers' Hall
Reviewed 11 December 2023

Schumann's song cycle in a performance full of youthful engagement at the centre of a lovely recital exploring aspects of Romantic devotion

Soprano Claire Ward and pianist JongSun Woo gave their lunchtime recital on Monday 11 December 2023 at the Tallow Chandlers' Hall, as part of the City Music Foundation's 10th anniversary season visiting the various City Livery Halls (as the season's regular home, the Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital is closed for restoration).  Tallow Chandlers' Hall is another of the City's historic halls, dating back to the 1670s.

The recital was title Devotion and centred on Schumann's Frauen-Liebe und Leben, Op. 42 plus songs by Richard Strauss, Brahms, Alma Mahler, Schoenberg, Faure, Debussy, Britten and Bridge, all exploring different aspects of the idea of devotion.

Ward and Woo began with Richard Strauss' Das Rosenband, dating from 1897/8 with a slightly scary text about binding a sleeping woman with a rose garland (yes, I know it's Romantic, but still...) The short piano prelude seemed to promise Schumann-esque delicacy but then Strauss erupted and Ward joined Woo, singing with poise and vibrant tone, the two combining passion and poetry. Brahms' An die Nachtigall came next, written in the mid-1860s and with another Romantic text about love and nightingales. Here Woo made Brahms' delicate piano writing complement Ward's intimate performance, all lyrical engagement. 

Alma Mahler's Rilke setting, Laue Sommernacht is about finding the lover in a deep forest in the dark of the night, so lots to parse there. Alma Mahler's setting felt quite traditional though with expressive chromatic harmony, whilst the song was published until 1910 most of her music is early, written before marriage to Mahler prevented further composition. The final one of this group was an early Schoenberg song, Erhebung, from 1899. Thus the Schoenberg, Strauss and Alma Mahler all dated from a similar period. Schoenberg was writing in a very late Romantic style, so much so that it almost felt over the top with nowhere else to go. Ward brought out the rapture of the text whilst Woo contributed similarly big piano writing.

Despite efforts to recast the work and place it in a different context, there is no denying the male gaze of Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, a male composer setting texts by a male writer emulating a woman's thoughts. But the genius of Schumann's writing is that for all that, he really captures something. Ward and Woo simply took the work and gave it to us, in performances that brought out that sense of youthful engagement. Throughout Ward sang with an engaging sense of identification with the story, the idea that we were hearing a youthful protagonist, and she was finely partnered by Woo who was wonderfully expressive, particularly in Schumann's postludes.

We began with Ward's plangent tone combining seriousness with the idea of wonder blooming, then in the second song there was impulsive enthusiasm and energy, with Ward communicating with word, gesture and face. This continue with the vivid drama of the third song, the three forming an arc of development in the couple's relationship. For the fourth song, now a ring is on the girl's finger, Ward was all poised story-telling, then when the wedding comes she was full of engagement and enthusiasm. The sixth song, where the text's meaning is a little hard to accept, Ward made the music tender, full of quiet rapture. With the coming of the child in the seventh, emotions vividly overflowed. And then, in the final song, the farewell was sung with quiet intensity with Woo profoundly expressive in the returning of the opening song in the postlude.

After this, things got a little lighter with Faure's delightful, early Le Papillon et la fleur, the two rendering it with a delightful skittishness. Faure's Le secret was more contained, intimate and quiet. Debussy's early Nuit d'etoiles with its hymn to a starry night was a lovely combination of the ethereal and the passionate. Britten's arrangement of the traditional Irish song, At the mid-hour of night continued the mood, whilst the recital ended with Frank Bridge in exuberant mood in Love went a-riding.

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