Duets and other lunchtime delights at St.Andrew’s

Music by Brahms, Ravel and Britten

Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano), and Roger Wilson (baritone),
with Fiona McCabe (piano)

BRAHMS – Four Duets for Alto and Baritone Op.28
RAVEL – Histoires naturelles (1906) – words by Jules Renard
BRITTEN – A Charm of Lullabies Op.41

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington,

Wednesday, 19th April, 2016

Here was a particularly happy marriage of music, performance and occasion, the repertoire engaging, balanced and varied, and the performances idiomatic, focused, and whole-hearted. Serving up the music of Brahms with firstly that of Ravel seemed to me to somehow underline the impishness of the former with the ironic wit of the latter, so that each of the worlds resonated and sparkled all the more.

And secondly, the choice of Britten, to whom Brahms’ music was anathema, further tantalised the enjoyments of the presentation, by way of demonstrating that each composer’s sensibility had more in common with the other’s than Britten’s own attitude would initially suggest – and, in any case, Brahms’ acquiescences towards conservative circles in the nineteenth-century now seem to our viewpoints far less polarising, whatever polemic was being enacted (mostly to injurious effect) at that time.

Both of the singers, Linden Loader and Roger Wilson, sounded in excellent voice, properly “inhabiting” their various texts and conveying to us their distinctive characters with great aplomb. And the venture’s success owed much to Fiona McCabe’s sensitive and evocative piano-playing – I was particularly entranced with the exquisite detailings she conjured up in various places during the Ravel song-cycle, and how readily she caught the composer’s characteristic bitter-sweet ironies in response to the singer’s words.

The concert began with two of Brahms’ Op.28 Duets, the first an archetypal German Romance from the world of heroic poetry, a setting of Eichendorff’s tale of a ghostly visitation of a woman by a knight, perhaps once her lover, perhaps already dead – a marvellously sombre evocation, the woman’s voice deep, rich and beautiful at the opening, the knight’s high, but strong and focused. Mostly in ritualistic dialogue form, the lines occasionally intertwined, and the music in places became more animated – but the mood of wonderment was sustained throughout, with the woman having the last word. The following “At the door” made a playful contrast, featuring deft and impish interactions between the voices and the piano, everything nicely and most amusingly thrown off.

Roger Wilson introduced the Ravel song-cycle, remarking most interestingly that the composer himself fell foul of the infamous Académie française, for daring to set words whose style infringed the guidelines of “correct” usage set by the Academy – Ravel himself was no stranger to institutionalised disapproval, having by this time (1906) attempted on a number of occasions to secure France’s then-respected Legion d’Honneur Award for his work, and been rejected. Each of these songs vividly evoked both character and atmosphere, with the sentiments of the text expressed often in mercilessly razor-sharp musical detailings.

The opening “Le paon” (The peacock) presented the bird’s haughty aspect along with its petty querrulousness, something of an Ozymandias in its arrogance, but perhaps masking a deep-seated anxiety in its “diabolical cry” – startlingly-voiced by the singer, on this occasion. By contrast, the sounds of “Le grillon” (The cricket) were all meticulousness and order, ruled by the prevailing intimacy of small things – both voice and piano painted the smallness of the scene with the finest of detailing.

In line with the well-known “Le Cygne” from another French work, “The Swan” glided amid watery textures with the vocal line arching like the bird’s neck over delicately dancing piano scintillations. Reflecting the poem’s text, the music evoked clouds as readily as it did water, underlining the “coming-together” of both in reflection, the “fleecy” clouds and the “cushion of feather”, before debuncking the poetry of the scene with a visceral description of the bird catching a worm in the mud!

I enjoyed the crepuscular atmospheres of “Le martin-pecheur” (The kingfisher), admiring the evocation of stillness in which even the kingfisher’s pecking seemed to have a ritualistic place. Singer and pianist wrought an almost breathless rapture through words and music on the part of the fisherman at his “close encounter” with a wild creature. Finally, “La pintade” (The Guinea-fowl) presented a more angular, quirky and fractious side of nature, Ravel’s music almost Musorgsky-like in its raw, idiomatic raucousness, the piano writing filled with vivid point-making and story-telling in support of the singer’s colourful discourse – such a compelling traversal of a fascinating sequence of personalities and situations!

Linden Loader then introduced the Britten work “A Charm of Lullabies” written for mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans, who first performed the work in January 1948. As a member of the English Opera Group, Evans had taken part in several first performances of Britten’s stage works, which included sharing the title role with Kathleen Ferrier in the composer’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, and Britten wrote the song-cycle in acknowledgement of her abilities and support. As with the “Serenade” which he’d completed in 1943, Britten chose a theme involving night and sleep, bringing together texts from different poets which expressed various aspects and ideas about the subject, some droll and amusing, others disturbing and even frightening.

The opening “A Cradle Song”, a setting of words by William Blake, presented singer and pianist in serene, yet separate accord, Linden Loader having warned us that voice and piano are “not really together”, however lyrical and well-intentioned are the music’s beginnings!The second lullaby “A Highland Balou” seemed more of a “tiring-out” song than a “soothing-to-sleep” lullaby, with a mother telling her child that he/she is a Highland brigand, who will grow up to become an outlaw and “bring hame a Carlisle cow”! Voice and piano filled the music’s “outdoor spaces” with terrific energy and enjoyment, if hardly sleep-making stuff!

Unsettling contrasts characterised “Sephestia’s Lullaby”, with its lamenting opening – “When thou art old, there’s grief enough for thee” set against rhythmic, almost skipping-rhyme or round-dance passages, though with words that hinted at tragedies overshadowing any joys. As for “A Charm”, the frenzied, volatile energies underpin a text whose words are threats which could have come from Dante’s Inferno, filled with nightmarish classical references to monsters and witches – “Sleep, or thou shalt see / the horrid hags of Tartary”. Again the performers threw themselves into the turmoil, bringing out the volatilities and instabilities of the setting with many deft touches.

By the time we came to the final lullaby, “The Nurse’s Song”, with its prayer-like soothings, both unaccompanied and then with both chordal and canonic support from the piano, I was reflecting on the picture of parental exasperation which this collection seemed to underline ( a fable for our time, perhaps, with childcare agencies commonly “kicking in” at an early age in the lives of many children, for various reasons) – Britten’s setting also made me think of that passage in one of Hillaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Verses” , which gave the warning “And always keep a-hold of Nurse / for fear of finding something worse”. So, fascinating, and in places beautiful – but also disturbing!

A kind of contextual sanity returned to the programme to finish the concert, with the remaining two Brahms duets from the composer’s Op.28 – as with the first two, these made a nicely contrasted pair, the first a setting of Goethe’s “Es rauschet das Wasser” (The rushing of the waters), in which each singer characterises the movement of water as a metaphor for love, before setting its freedom of movement against the constancy of stars and equating love of “the true kind” with that same constancy. The performers vividly brought out these different “characters”, before adroitly dovetailing the sentiments and the modes in conclusion, complete with a grand piano postlude.

As for the final “Der Jäger und sein Liebchen”, both singers relished the opportunities for argumentative engagement, and brought home the age-old conflict of opposite personalities and their preoccupations with plenty of tongue-in-cheek dramatic gusto – a welcome frisson of interactive sanity which we all recognised and enjoyed! In all, a very great pleasure, thanks to the concert’s thoroughness of preparation (even the printed programme was a joy!) and the elan and focus of all three performers throughout.

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