A Concert of Vocal Ensembles
Lesley Graham (soprano), Linden Loader (mezzo), and Roger Wilson (baritone), Julie Coulson (piano)
St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington
Thursday 18 November, 2021
These well-known singers, old friends and opera collagues, are accustomed to presenting a lunchtime concert at this time of year, and the programme was an interesting mix of songs that reflected their tastes and interests.
Unfortunately, such was the lack of parking on The Terrace, I missed the lighter items that opened the concert, ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron’, and ‘The Boatie Rows’ from The Book of Scottish Song (1843), and arrived in time for the high seriousness of four Mozart Nocturnes. Suddenly St Andrews turned into a Viennese drawing-room. Mozart wrote these songs in 1788 for his friend, the botanist Nicolaus Josef von Jacquin. Set for SSB, they were intended for domestic performance, and the original accompaniment was three basset horns (‘unfortunately not available for today’s concert’, as the learned and witty programme notes put it, although a ‘portative organ’ would ‘work just as well’). The texts are translations of ‘rather stylized Italian poems … translated into equally inconsequential German’, and the sentiments can be discerned by the titles: ‘If you are far from me’ and ‘I bear my pain in silence’ and so on.
The singing was very stylish, and the songs themselves reminded me strongly of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzer (written for four voices, not three, about 80 years later), also designed for domestic performance.
Then Roger Wilson left the stage for the set of three Shakespeare duets for two women’s voices: ‘Ye spotted snakes’ (but by Keel (1871-1954), not Mendelssohn), and two better known songs by Vaughan Williams, ‘It was a lover and his lass’ and ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’. The text of ‘Ye spotted snakes’ is considerably better than the music, in my view, whose heart was in the dull decades of the nineteenth century (‘Ye spotted snakes with double tongue, /Thorny hedgehogs be not seen; / Newts and blind-worms, so no wrong, / Come not near our Fairy Queen’). But the Vaughan Williams settings are justly well known (though less so than RVW’s Three Shakespeare Songs for SATB), the women’s voices were beautifully paired, and Lesley Graham’s stage presence sparkled.
Roger Wilson returned to sing ‘The Water Mill’, a ballad that began promisingly, ‘There was a maid…’. Well chosen. The next RVW number was ‘See the Chariot of Love’, from the under-performed opera Sir John in Love, written originally for SATB. But – as Lesley Graham put it – ‘we lost our tenor’, so the trio asked Michael Vinten to rearrange the quartet for SAB. The song is placed near the end of the opera, at the point where the complicated plots come together in a welter of explanations. Vinten told me he dealt with the tenor line by giving the baritone ‘more jumping about’ to do than in the original. The piano part was ravishingly played by Julie Coulson. I liked it a great deal.
The last two items on this surprising programme were two arrangements by Beethoven. ‘Up! Quit thy bower’ (which sounds like something you’d shout on weekday mornings to sleepy teenagers) was taken from 12 schottische Volkslieder WoO 156, and was fun. But more fun was Beethoven’s arrangement of ‘Charlie is my darling’ (a poem written by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, as every schoolchild knows), complete with Scotch snaps. The piano part, as you might expect from L van Beethoven, was crisp and fabulous, and so was Julie Coulson’s playing.