Demanding song recital reflects more ambition than accomplishment

‘The Story of the Birds in the Trees’
William McElwee (baritone) and Heather Easting (piano)

Fauré: Dans les ruines d’une abbaye, Op.2 no1; Les berceaux, Op.23 no.1; Clair de lune, Op.46,no.2
Howells: King David
Schumann: Dichterliebe Op.48

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 27 June 2018, 12.15pm

It is not often that I attend a lunchtime concert at St. Andrew’s and come away disappointed, but that was the case this time.  I am fond of Fauré’s songs and deeply devoted to Schumann’s Dichterliebe.  But this time I could not say I was enchanted by what I heard.

The first song went well.  The second, like a number later on, was perhaps a little low for William McElwee’s voice, in places; the low notes were not mellifluous.  French language was well- pronounced.  ‘Clair de lune’ is a delightful song.  But the singer’s tone was a little harsh at times, and there was a lack of subtlety.  I was reminded of what I heard an adjudicator of a singing competition say once: ‘Chew the words’.

Heather Easting’s piano accompaniments here, and throughout the recital, were splendid, with good variation of tone and dynamics suited the words.  A good feature of this concert was that applause came only at the end of each bracket.  Maybe there was an instruction to the audience about this before the singing began; I was a little late, and missed any pre-concert announcements.

Another excellent feature was that the translations of the songs were printed in the programme, and the names of the poets set by the composers were printed.  Too often they are not given credit.

It was not always easy to catch the words of the Howells song; being in English they were not printed in the programme.  Sometimes here, and again in some of the Schumann songs, the singer was a little under the note; not badly flat, but not right on pitch.  Tone and timbre needed to be varied more.

Perhaps Schumann’s Dichterliebe was too tough an assignment.  The first song speaks of love, desire and longing, but I did not hear these sentiments in the voice part – no excitement or surprised joy.  The second song is one of tears and sighs, but here it seemed to have the same tone and expression as the first one.

The third song is faster, and here some excitement crept in to express feelings.  There was  subtlety in the fourth, (‘When I look in your eyes…’).  The next song should have conveyed breathless anticipation and joy, but I could not hear those emotions.  The great ‘Ich grolle nicht’ is a powerful, dramatic song, about the lover not bearing a grudge although the object of his love appears to have turned against him.  The low notes were too low for the singer to be able to provide them with any expression.  I could not hear any tension or drama – it was too plain and unvarying, but improved by the end.  Another singers’ aphorism I have heard is ‘Do something with every note’.

Throughout, the German language was pronounced well.  The 11th song (‘A youth loved a maiden..’) was livelier, musically, but the voice lacked animation.  The following song (on a sunny summer morning…) needed a calm tone.  The piano accompaniment was exquisite, not least in the lovely postlude to the song.  The 13th  (‘I wept in my dream…’) revealed the  attractive high notes of the singer – they were pleasant and strong.

The 14th song (‘I see you every night in dreams’) had a beautiful piano accompaniment.  The penultimate song suited McElwee’s voice better and sounded fine.  The final song had more character to it and showed off again the singer’s good high notes.  The extended piano postlude was glorious and gentle.

This song cycle is one of the plums of the vocal repertoire, but the fruit here were unripe.  It is emotional and dramatic, and these characteristics needed to be revealed in the voice.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *