BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones & Simon Lepper in songs by Horovitz, Smyth, Clarke, Vaughan Williams & Wallen

BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano), Simon Lepper (piano)

Horovitz Lady Macbeth – a scena (1970) [Proms premiere]
Smyth Fünf Lieder, Op. 4 (c1877) [Proms premiere]
Clarke The Seal Man (1921-2) [Proms premiere]
Vaughan Williams Four Last Songs (1954-8) [Proms premiere of original version]
Wallen Lady Super Spy Adventurer (2022) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Monday 29 August 2022, 1pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (Claire Barnett-Jones) (c) Benjamin Ealovega

The series of regional lunchtime Proms this afternoon reached Birmingham for a song recital by Claire Barnett-Jones, whose success at last year’s Cardiff Singer of the World and having studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire made her appearance doubly apposite. Equally so the initial item by Joseph Horovitz, after his death in February at 96. Lady Macbeth – a scena revealed his more serious side – with monologues from the first, second and fifth acts of ‘The Scottish Play’ charting the anti-heroine’s journey from aspiration via ambition to desperation.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a recurrent feature this season – the present set of Lieder a reminder that, before she achieved fame with The Wreckers and notoriety as a suffragette, she had received a thoroughly Teutonic musical education in Leipzig. Fluent and idiomatic, these five settings are fluent and idiomatic: the enervation of Büchner’s Tanzlied followed by the wistfulness of Wildenbruch’s Schlummerlied and eloquence of Eichendorff’s Mittagsrum, then the assertiveness of Groth’s Nachtreiter and transcendence of Heyse’s Nachtgedanken.

Barnett-James rendered them with sensitivity and insight, with Simon Lepper (above) no less attuned to those most often intricate accompaniments. Qualities equally evident in Rebecca Clarke’s luminous setting of Masefield’s evocative if rather prolix The Seal Man as well as Four Last Songs that Vaughan Williams set to texts by his second wife, the poet Ursula Wood. From the fatalism of The Death of Procris, via the acceptance of Tired and the poise of Hands, Eyes and Heart, to the fulfilment of Menelaus – these are songs which speak of a life well-lived.

A very different take on the journey from innocence to experience is proffered by Lady Super Spy Adventurer, written by Errollyn Wallen for this recital and which might be described as a ‘concert aria’ in that its highly visual – and often visceral – rendering of the composer’s own text is balanced by a sure formal sense as to where these deceptively superficial observations are headed. Barnett-James despatched them with suitable aplomb such that Wallen, listening from home, must have been well satisfied.

Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, the second song from his cycle of Rossetti poems House of Life, made for an affecting encore.

Click on the artist names for more information on Claire Barnett-Jones and Simon Lepper. For more information on this year’s BBC Proms, head to the festival website

BBC Proms #47 – Sheléa, Vula’s Chorale, Jules Buckley Orchestra / Jules Buckley – Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Prom 47 – Sheléa (vocals), Vula’s Chorale, Jules Buckley Orchestra / Jules Buckley

Royal Albert Hall, London

Monday 22 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Mark Allan

The year during which she would have celebrated her 80th birthday made this celebration of Aretha Franklin a shoo-in for the Proms. Jules Buckley was on hand with his newly formed eponymous orchestra for an evening that surveyed the Queen of Soul’s considerable stylistic range, as surely as it introduced a much-heralded American singer, songwriter, and pianist to the wider UK public. After her performance tonight, indeed, it would be more then surprising were Sheléa (Frazier) not to have found an appreciably higher profile this side of the Atlantic.

If not strictly chronological, the programme began with an obvious homage to Aretha’s roots in John Wright’s Precious Memories and gospel as its most soulful – astutely balanced by the Broadnax/Paul/Wonder Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) and soul at its most pop. The pathos of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark was enhanced with a flute-drenched arrangement, then Sheléa took to the piano for the emotional build-up of the Nelson/Ertegun Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) with the sax section bracingly to the fore. Next came two co-writes from Franklin and her one-time husband Ted White – the smouldering blues of Dr Feelgood (no pub-rock connotations here) followed by the up-tempo Think with its rousing call-and-response between Sheléa and Vula Malinga’s gospel choir. Expressively mannered though her take on Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere might have been, the evocative quality of the arrangement by Quincy Jones could hardly be doubted. The raunchy r&b of Dan Covay’s Chain of Fools, keyboards much in evidence, saw this first half through to its full-on close.

An interval costume-change and Sheléa got the insouciance of Burt Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer down to a tee, thanks in part to an atmospheric orchestral introduction, as she did the plaintive soul-pop of Curtis Mayfield’s Sparkle. A member of the choir audibly enjoyed his ‘George Michael’ cameo with the Climie/Morgan duet I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), complemented by the punchy afro-beat of Franklin’s own Rock Steady. The choir came into its own first via the Leiber/Spector Spanish Harlem with its effective interplay of solos and ensemble, followed by Franklin’s Day Dreaming with its sensuous contribution from flutes and vibes. A second costume-change – and Sheléa returned for a suitably though sincerely histrionic rendition of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, before launching into a take on the Goffin/King (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman that oozed pulsating energy. This, in turn, segued into the inevitable closing number – Otis Redding’s Respect, its incitement   to the attaining then maintaining of freedom surely as relevant today as it was 57 years ago.

Throughout this programme, Sheléa’s commitment to the Aretha cause was underpinned in no uncertain terms by Buckley, who rightly took a moment to pay tribute to those arrangers – two of whom, tenor saxophonist Tom Richards and the trumpeter Tom Walsh, were active members of his orchestra – whose input had made this evening the success it proved to be. Singer and conductor met the applause from a capacity Albert Hall with a version of Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water finding Sheléa and her piano in intimate communion.

Click on the artist names for more information on Sheléa, Vula Malinga and Jules Buckley – and for a site dedicated to Aretha Franklin, click here

Song at Wolfson – Ukraine Fundraiser

It is so gratifying to see all the musical initiatives currently underway to raise money for Ukraine. One that I particularly wanted to draw attention to is a concert taking place at the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium in Wolfson College, Oxford, on 9 June.

British-Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus will be joined in a celebration of Ukrainian song by pianist and Oxford Lieder Festival founder Sholto Kynoch. Rozanna is a former Oxford Lieder Young Artist, and the programme will be introduced by Philip Bullock, setting the history of Ukrainian music in cultural context.

The program includes songs by the 19th-century Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko, as well as music by Yakiv Stepovyi, Kyrylo Stetsenko and Stefania Turkewich. The commentary for the concert reveals that Turkewich studied with Joseph Marx and Arnold Schoenberg, before fleeing the Soviets for England in 1946, where she stayed until her death in 1977. Some of her songs have only recently been discovered. With the inclusion of Ukrainian folk songs, the concert promises to be an eye-opening occasion, bringing the music and poetry of Ukraine to the forefront at such an awful time for the country.

The concert will be presented in support of the DEC Ukraine appeal. With generous support from Breckon & Breckon, all costs of the concert are covered and 100% of ticket sales will go directly to the DEC. Although seating is unreserved as usual, tickets are priced at £15, £20 and £25 to help raise as much as possible. If you would like to donate further, please click here to give directly to DEC.

You can book tickets for the concert at the Oxford Lieder website

In concert – Elisabeth Brauß @ Wigmore Hall – Domenico Scarlatti, Mozart, Ravel & Prokofiev

Elisabeth Brauß (piano)

Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in C minor Kk56; Sonata in C Kk159 ‘La caccia’; Sonata in B minor Kk27; Sonata in B minor Kk87; Sonata in G Kk427 (exact dates unknown)
Mozart Piano Sonata in A minor K310 (1778)
Ravel Sonatine (1903-05)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)

Wigmore Hall, London, 24 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

Seven sonatas and a sonatine in the space of an hour represents good value for a lunchtime concert – and even more so when the works in question span nearly two centuries. This was down to the clever programming of German pianist Elisabeth Brauß, a member of the BBC New Generations Scheme. She presented a potted history of the development of the sonata, moving as it did to the very centre of the concert platform by the twentieth century.

Brauß began her imaginatively thought-out hour with five sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, just under 1% of the composer’s remarkable output in the form. Within his 550 or so published works there is an inexhaustible variety, and Brauß gave us some fine examples. Her crisp delivery of the C minor work was complemented by the playful ‘Caccia’ sonata, Scarlatti’s writing of parallel thirds tastefully ornamented in the right hand. Slipping into B minor, there was a more obvious Bach influence in an elegant performance of the Kk27 sonata, before a more reflective example in the same key, given plenty of room with ideally weighted inside parts. This thoughtful and emotive account was swept to one side by the showy G major sonata, chasing the clouds away.

Mozart‘s A minor sonata followed, a profound work written in the wake of the sudden illness and death of the composer’s mother Anna Maria in Paris, 1778. The principal phrase of the first movement is conspicuous for a ‘wrong’ note, an E flat played at the same time as an A minor chord, which can throw the listener. Brauß did well to give it the surprise factor, resulting in quite an unnerving and uncertain mood.

The second movement was initially calm, bringing out the singing style of Mozart’s marking of Andante cantabile con espressione rather beautifully. There was a refreshing lack of weight to this performance, the melodies floating on air, in contrast to a heavy-set middle section. The Presto finale, initially serious, brightened as the tonality moved into the major key, Brauß sensing hope in Mozart’s writing.

There was clarity in her Ravel, too, which found the right combination of technical flair and intimacy. Brauß portrayed the questioning nature of the first movement, just before its main theme returns and resolves. A limpid second movement was followed by a finale notable for its virtuosity – following the Animé marking – but which kept its conversational qualities.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.3 is a compressed firecracker, a work with plenty to say in its eight minutes. This performance was very impressive if holding back a little in the more raucous moments. Brauß was a more than capable guide to this impetuous piece, however, finding the heart of the adventurous coda, which sounds a lot newer than its 1917 composition date would suggest.

She clearly loves Prokofiev, as the Prelude in C major Op.12/7 made an ideal encore, bringing out the composer’s balletic side. There was less percussiveness in this lyrical account, notable for some lovely melodic phrasing.

Watch and listen

You can listen to the repertoire from this concert in choice recordings on the Spotify playlist below (Elisabeth has not yet recorded any of the pieces):

In concert – Sandrine Piau & David Kadouch @ Wigmore Hall – Journeys: Longing and Leaving

Sandrine Piau (soprano), David Kadouch (piano)

Schubert Mignon (Kennst du das Land) D321 (1815), Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister D877: Heiss mich nicht reden; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (1826)
Clara Schumann Er ist gekommen Op. 12 No. 1 (1841); Sie liebten sich beide Op. 13 No. 2 (1842); Lorelei (1843)
Robert Schumann Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister Op. 98a: Kennst du das Land (1849)
Duparc La vie antérieure (1884); L’invitation au voyage (1870)
Lili Boulanger Clairières dans le ciel (1913-14): Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve; Je garde une médaille d’elle; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Debussy Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917); 5 poèmes de Baudelaire (1890): Le jet d’eau; Recueillement; La mort des amants

Wigmore Hall, London, 17 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

It was heartening indeed to see the Wigmore Hall at capacity for the visit of soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist David Kadouch, bringing with them a new program with the theme of Journeys: Longing and Leaving.

They delivered the songs in two ‘halves’, one of German Lieder drawn  from the first half of the 19th century, the other of French song from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving us a smooth trajectory from Schubert to Debussy.

Refreshingly the journey took in substantial contributions from Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, three songs from each – as well as showing the increasing influence of Wagner on even the smallest forms of vocal music as the century turned.

Singing from a tablet, Sandrine Piau gave heartfelt performances and had the ideal foil in David Kadouch, whose brushstrokes on the piano were immediately telling. His chilly introduction to the third song in the Schubert group, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, set the tone after a characterful first song and a sorrowful second, with a soaring vocal line from the soprano. Piau sang with arms outstretched, expressively capturing all the ornamentation and hitting the depths of the song’s turbulent middle section.

The Clara Schumann selection was fascinating, especially given the context of husband Robert’s well-known productivity in the years 1841-1843. The urgent Er ist gekommen was first, a heady song sitting high in the range, before a setting of Heine from just after Schumann’s celebrated year of song, a yearning and ultimately tragic number with a limpid commentary from the piano. The Loreley started in the same key, pushing restlessly forward. The only Schumann song in the program retained its intensity despite a noisy mobile phone introduction, a very different setting to the same text as tackled by Schubert at the start.

Turning to France, we heard two from the small output of Henri Duparc, whose entire output barely covers the length of a single concert. There is quality rather than quantity, however, and we heard the celebrated L’invitation au voyage, sumptuously performed with great poise. The two found the ideal pacing for La vie antérieure before it, solemn but quite open, and building to a powerful declamation.

Lili Boulanger wrote powerfully original music before her tragic death at the age of 24. Her orchestral tone poems have received greater exposure of late but the songs have remained relatively hidden. Piau and Kadouch put that to rights with three songs drawn from the wartime collection Clairières dans le ciel. They found an ominous tone in the lower vocal register from Piau, all the more so given the retrospective knowledge that Boulanger would only live for another three years from when the songs were written. The pained complexion at the end of Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve from Piau was profoundly affecting, then a slightly more optimistic Je garde une médaille d’elle led to the purity of Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme.

Finally a selection from Debussy, prefaced by his final published piano piece Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon. This was a nice touch as an interlude, and was beautifully played. by Kadouch, We then heard three of the five Baudelaire poèmes, beginning with a babbling fountain shaded by Kadouch as Piau’s voice floated easily above. Recueillement (Meditation) found stillness initially but with the poet, distracted by darker thoughts, was mirrored by the music breaking from its reverie. Piau judged the awkward intervals perfectly, especially the final words with their harmonic transformation. The ultimate farewell was saved for last, La mort des amants quite a complex song. As with much early Debussy the harmonies travelled far but arrived at a strangely logical end point, both performers exhibiting exceptional control at journey’s end.

Piau spoke of the program giving ‘therapy after these two long years’, after which Beau Soir – one of Debussy’s celebrated songs – proved the ideal encore, though as the soprano warned, it was essentially saying, “Look at these beautiful things, because everybody goes in the same direction – death!”

Watch and listen