Wednesday 3 July 2019

Gala land: 'A Serenade to Music' at Wigmore Hall

I picked a winner for my first gala. The purpose of this amazing gig at Wigmore Hall was to raise funds for Leeds Lieder, the organisation behind a brilliant art song festival held in the city each spring (and much more besides).

The Director of Leeds Lieder is Joseph Middleton - a name that is likely to be familiar to regular readers of this blog, as the pianist on some of my favourite song recordings of recent years. For example, there's the superb body of work he is currently building with Carolyn Sampson ('Fleurs', 'A Verlaine Songbook', 'Lost is my Quiet' featuring Iestyn Davies, 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' and the brilliant, latest album 'Reason in Madness'); 'Nocturnal Variations' with Ruby Hughes; 'Voyages' with Mary Bevan; 'Songs to the Moon' with his vocal super-group the Myrthen Ensemble... the list goes on, but I'm going to stop there, for fear of leaving too many - or too few - of his colleagues out.

Why mention JM's handsome back catalogue? In a modest but telling address to the audience, he recounted how he was able to put the concert together. I paraphrase, of course: but he said how grateful he was that all it took was a few texts to his friends, and within the day he was receiving an avalanche of positive replies. It was clear from the warm atmosphere onstage that - on top of waiving their fees - all the artists were quite happy to go the extra mile (well, in some cases, thanks to our public transport system, many extra miles) to take part.

One of the characteristics of any event - recording or gig - where JM is involved is his flair for collaborative programming. I'm always inspired by the way that the discs he puts together with singers feel like proper 'albums', with thematic threads and careful sequencing providing a real sense of unity and continuity, often across a range of varied, intriguing material. And here, he managed it over some two-and-a-half hours of live performance, with 18 performers presenting the work of 23 composers. Here is that stellar line-up:

(The eagle-eyed among you may notice my subtle adjustment to correct the typo in Ema Nikolovska's name.)

Our unifying theme for the evening was Shakespeare: all but one of the songs was a setting of Bardic text - the exception was... well, see below! (And at the foot of this post I've added another photo showing the whole sequence of songs, which I hope will be legible enough on your device.) However, with Shakespeare's canon providing ongoing inspiration for composers over several centuries, we were led through a number of journeys and detours - making up a perfectly-balanced, yet still unpredictable, whole.

For example, we sometimes heard the same text repeated in adjacent performances, showing how musical interpretations can differ: for example, the treatment of 'Fancy'/'Fancie' by both Poulenc and Britten, side by side - or going back in time from Tippett's version of  'Where the bee sucks' (verse from 'The Tempest') for solo voice, to the Thomas Arne / William Jackson 18th-century group setting. Elsewhere, comparative versions were separated, the recurring lines of the poetry becoming reminders of the endless fascination Shakespeare holds and why composers might be drawn to the same texts ('Orpheus with his lute' from Sullivan and Vaughan Williams; 'It was a lover and his lass' by way of Quilter and Rutter).

The overall shape of the programme worked like a (midsummer night's?) dream, as well. Each half was bookended with rousing group performances, the climactic Vaughan Williams 'Serenade' involving the whole ensemble. In between, everyone was given their chance to shine, with the various pieces matched skilfully to their performers.

To pick highlights is almost painful, with each song arguably a stand-out moment. Again, I'm in terror of leaving someone or something out. So - accepting that it's impractical to describe every note from start to finish - I will be really strict with myself, my memory and my critical faculties by picking just five moments that had me spellbound. In no particular order:
  • James Gilchrist's rendition of Quilter's 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' - achieving a kind of hymnal simplicity in his restrained treatment - reminded me just what a singularly beautiful voice he has, and how I don't get to hear it enough.
  • Ema Nikolovska gave an unforgettable performance of Alison Bauld's 'Witches' song'. There is no piano accompaniment - using voice(s) alone, EN inhabited the characters of all three witches, plus Hecate, from 'Macbeth'. The result - impeccably sung - looked and sounded like someone breaking out into multiple personalities onstage, humorous one second, horrifying the next.
  • Earlier in the post, I implied that one song used the text a little more freely than the others. That was John Dankworth's 'Dunsinane Blues' - a witty jaunt through Macbeth's final days by way of the jazz club (Ronnie Scot's, perhaps?!)... Nicky Spence - to use the proper musicological term - 'went for it', in full showman mode, communicating total joy in the song's surreal good cheer. 
  • Fully inhabiting R Strauss's 'Three Ophelia songs', Carolyn Sampson captures the character's ruined innocence, matching the purity of her tone with (especially given the gala setting) highly convincing acting and movement. Appearing truly haunted, her right hand sought the side of the piano - as far from a singer's relaxed pose as you could imagine, the fingers scratched and groped for purchase, the support somehow not there; her vulnerability was evident; and we were completely in the moment.
  • Staying with Ophelia, Ruby Hughes sang the chillingly beautiful setting of 'They bore him barefaced on the bier' by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Spare, spectral, with JM on piano she conjured up an atmospheric sound close to their fine 'Nocturnal Variations' CD.
I could so easily have typed up five other bulletpoints - or ten. What came over so clearly was how pleased everyone was to be there, enjoyment and appreciation writ large on the faces of the performers watching each other onstage, and no doubt inspiring the instant chemistry obvious in the group numbers.

It was a privilege to have a miniature Leeds Lieder festival come to London in this way, like a benign Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. Now all I need to do is get to the real thing..!

For more information about Leeds Lieder - including upcoming events, and how to support the organisation - look here.

Here is the full concert programme:

1 comment:

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