Fine exploratory recital of Shakespeare songs from Corby and Beardsworth

A feast of Shakespeare with Megan Corby (soprano) and Craig Beardsworth (baritone), who trade as ‘Voxbox’, with Catherine Norton (piano)

Old Saint Paul’s

Tuesday 19 June, 12.15pm

Here was a splendid recital by two polished and practised singers, grasping a theme that lends itself to a varied programme. Well, varied if I ignore the fact that the only non-English settings were by Strauss.

The songs were shared, roughly, alternately between the two, starting with Megan singing two early settings (except that the first, said to be anonymous 16th century, overlooked the fact that Othello, from which the Willow Song came, wasn’t written till about 1604).

However, Megan began as she would continue, singing without the score in front of her, in a bright, attractive voice, well articulated, with clear diction.

Two settings of several songs were offered. Craig’s first was ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ from Henry VIII (one of the last plays believed to be a collaboration with John Fletcher), set by Arthur Sullivan. His high opening note emerged in a remarkable falsetto, beautifully controlled, that increased in volume, and continued in phrases that demonstrated impressive discipline over tone colours and dynamics.

The same words reappeared later from Megan in a setting by American composer William Schuman, neither especially memorable nor unmelodious, but given a thoughtful performance.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ from As you like it also appeared in two settings: Thomas Arne’s of 1740 from Megan and Roger Quilter’s of around 1922 from Craig, an open-voice alternating with more conversational tones, ending with striking dramatic notes.

From the same composer came the setting of ‘Take, o take those lily lips’ from Measure for Measure (perhaps more famous among music-lovers as the play Wagner’s early Das Liebesverbot was based on); and again Craig’s velvety voice found a fruitful role in it.

Megan sang the deeply moving dirge, ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ from Cymbeline, composed by Ian Higginson (to me unknown, though the Internet tells me he was born in Merseyside and works around the Midlands) , in tones that reflected the emotion, though the quite elegant setting didn’t, for me, match the power of the words (the greatest, best-known poetry is the hardest to set to music, for nothing can improve on the way the poet himself has used the rhythms and sounds of words to convey the intellectual and emotional force of beautiful poetry, which is why, many believe, Schubert set so many poems by poets of the second rank).

However, Gerald Finzi’s setting of that poem does approach it more nearly, and it appeared in the group of Finzi songs that Craig sang later. That group was a highlight of the recital, and that, probably the most striking performance, with the slow rise and fall of dynamics, and the piano’s contribution that somehow evoked the presence of death. And it must be recorded that Catherine Norton’s playing was far more than simply appropriate, sensitive and supportive.

Twelfth Night also yields some of the most poignant lyrics such as the concluding ‘When that I was a little, tiny boy’, ‘O Mistress mine’ and ‘Come away death’. The latter two, as well as ‘Who is Sylvia’ from Two gentlemen of Verona and ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As you like it, were also in the beautiful Finzi group.

The latter song, from Megan, also appeared in a setting by Frederic Austin, a singer/organist/composer of the early 20th century.

It leaves the penultimate group, sung by Megan: Strauss’s Three songs of Ophelia (from Op 67) from Act IV, scene 5 of Hamlet, in which he conveys the girl’s growing madness, in tones that found acute expression of the unhinged mind.

She sang them most persuasively, from memory, in excellent German: ‘How should I your true love know’, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’, and ‘They bore him barefaced on the bier’.

[And as I load this about 1.45pm, I listen to RNZ Concert broadcasting Patricia Wright, accompanied by Rosemary Barnes, singing these very songs, beautifully, though perhaps with not quite the degree of mental disorder that Corby brought to them].

The concert ended with the duet, ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ from Much ado about nothing (this one the basis of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict) by one Sally Albrecht (born in Ohio in 1954), in jolly, galloping 3/8 rhythm, befitting the servant Balthazar’s ditty that Benedict at once ridicules. The pair, inauthentically perhaps, but most agreeably, brought things to an end with a droll note of cheerful cynicism.

It was interesting to observe that hardly any of the plays that opera composers have drawn on were among these, mainly the comedies, that song composers are attracted to. So we got no Bellini, Thomas, Gounod, Verdi, Britten…


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