Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Diverting three-quarter hour of flute-flavoured song: Barbara Graham, Rebecca Steel, Fiona McCabe

By , 19/09/2017

Songs at Old Saint Paul’s
Barbara Graham – soprano; Fiona McCabe – piano; Rebecca Steel – flute

Pieces by Handel, Saint-Saëns, Caplet, Mozart, Massenet and Ravel; John Dankworth arrangements of songs of Canteloube, Sondheim and himself

Old Saint Paul’s

Tuesday 19 September, 12:15 pm

For a somewhat bigger-than-average audience including, I gather, a contingent from a retirement village, all three performers contributed commentary mixing erudition with light-heartedness. So we began with references to Handel’s ode, or oratorio, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato, sung by Barbara Graham. The oratorio was based on Milton’s poem of a century earlier, entitled ‘L’Allegro-Il Penseroso’, which was enlarged at the prompting of Handel’s friends, with a portrait of the ‘moderate’, shall we say, sanguine man: someone at the centre, more rational, less ideological perhaps, in keeping with the ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century.

Handel’s colleague and librettist Charles Jennens, who compiled/wrote several other oratorio texts, including Messiah), decided that, in addition to introducing a ‘moderate’ figure, Milton’s poem would become a dialogue, mixing lines from each of the two parts to create a more dramatic scenario.

The air ‘Sweet bird’ which Barbara sang is in Part I (‘L’Allegro’) of Handel’s work, but it is found at line 60 of ‘Il Penseroso’, the second part of Milton’s pair of poems. It is followed in the oratorio by ‘If I give thee honour due’, given to a bass singer, and that is from Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’. (Once upon a time this stuff was familiar in secondary schools; and the entire Milton poem is in A Pageant of English Verse which was a set book in my 6th form English class: I’ve still got the volume; something sad seems to have happened to secondary school syllabuses in the meantime).

Her singing was splendid: strong, well characterised, with perfectly judged vibrato and no sign of strain as she rose higher, expressing a touch of melancholy (bearing in mind that the lines are from ‘Il Penseroso’). Rebecca Steel’s flute wove charmingly around the voice; when the line rose, there was no strain; and pianist Fiona McCabe contributed a thoroughly supportive accompaniment.

Two French songs followed, with the flute as the subject; first a late song by Saint-Saëns, ‘Une flûte invisible’, with a lovely vocal melody which is echoed or supported by the piano and flute, sometimes reaching high, decoratively, yearningly.

André Caplet was a friend of Debussy and orchestrated several of Debussy’s works. His ‘Viens! … Une flûte invisible’, by Victor Hugo, was not so bird-like, or perhaps this was a sadder bird, more enigmatic in mood. It’s an enchanting song, not far removed from Debussy in character, again with its indispensable flute embellishment, all enveloped by the subtle piano. I confess to making use of YouTube to gain more familiarity with music I haven’t run into before. This delicious little song is sung by that remarkably feminine French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky. Though the real feminine voice of Barbara Graham was almost his equal; and there’s nothing like a live performance.

Then came an aria from Mozart’s little-known opera Un re pastore, ‘L’amorò, caro costante’. Again, in an arrangement that allowed the flute prominence, it offered Graham the chance to display dramatic powers, even though the ‘opera seria’ idiom sounds conventional to our ears. But not bad for a 19-year-old.

More French song followed: Massenet’s Élégie, for cello and orchestra, from his incidental music to Leconte de Lisle’s verse drama, ‘Les Érinnyes’ (also spelled Les Érinyes). Treating a facet of the story of the Mycenian family of Agamemnon and Menelaus, Klytemnestra, Elektra, Iphigenia, Orestes and the rest, caught up in the aftermath of the Trojan war. It’s a lovely melody that I first encountered as an easy enough cello piece; Massenet later added words which is what we heard: a little search suggests it was probably ‘Ô doux printemps d’autrefois’.

That was followed by Ravel’s ‘La flûte enchantée’ from his Shéhérazade (note, the French do not adhere to the German way of representing the ‘sh’ sound – ‘sch’ – which English for some reason has slavishly followed in this name. Though normal French spelling for that sound would be ‘ch’). Ravel was in part inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant four-part suite; the words are by Tristan Klingsor. It’s an exquisite melody, in which the flute proved an important contributor, much in its warm lower register, and again, Ravel’s piano part, in Fiona McCabe’s fluent hands, was very much worth attending to.

Then came three songs, arranged or composed by John Dankworth for his wife Cleo Laine; the best-known (thanks in part to Kiri), Baïlèro, from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. I’m afraid I was not especially taken with the Dankworth version which seemed to me to have quite abandoned, apart from the flute accompaniment, the shining luminosity of the Auvergne region.

The song from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, was more akin to the Dankworth jazz idiom; both flute and piano had attractive parts, creating a thoughtful, slightly despairing spirit. Dankworth’s own ‘Play it again Sam’, had integrity, in its conception and style, and Barbara Graham’s voice and facial and other gestures created a delightful impression. That’s what a little 5-year-old thought too, standing on the pew a couple of rows in front of me, and facing back towards me, her head and hands moving in lively and engaging response to the rhythm and spirit of the song.

The three musicians had delivered a charming ¾ of an hour of music.

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