In concert – Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates Saint-Saëns with Elizabeth Watts, Victor Sicard & Anna Cardona, Fenella Humphreys & Martin Roscoe, Adèle Charvet & Anne Le Bozec

Various venues in Oxford, Saturday 9 October. Artists as listed below

Written by Ben Hogwood from online streams

The Oxford Lieder festival is into its 20th year, a cause for celebration indeed. It has become one of the UK’s finest classical music events, lovingly curated and produced but gathering increasing levels of enthusiasm every year.

The 2021 model is ideally weighted, with live music events streamed and recorded for posterity – an ideally weighted dual approach in these uncertain times. Titled Nature’s Songbook, it has set aside days for anniversary composers Saint-Saëns (100 years since his death) and the lesser-heard Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar (150 years since his birth)

Saint-Saëns had his day on the Saturday, offering audiences a chance to appreciate his under-heard Mélodies in the context of better-known chamber and stage works, not to mention works by pupils and contemporaries. Baritone Victor Sicard & pianist Anna Cardona (above) were on first, the 2011 winners of the festival’s Young Artists Platform giving a recital from the ideal acoustic Saint John the Evangelist.

They began with a pupil and close friend of the featured composer. Gabriel Fauré was to become one of the very finest French composers of the 20th century, his output headed but not restricted to sublime contributions in the world of chamber music, piano and song. We heard his first published song cycle Poème d’un jour Op.21, a brief affair – which is ironic, since the subject of Charles Grandmougin’s verse was exactly that. Sicard found his feet in the slightly sorrowful first song, with an easily flowing piano part from Cardona. There was strength of character in the second, and wistfulness in the third as the day-long love affair fizzled out.

Saint-Saëns melodies followed and – as is often the case with this composer – hit the mark immediately. The attractive La Brise was secured by a rustic drone from Sicard’s left hand, which also gave its urgency to the next song. Emotionally the heart of this selection lay in La splendeur vide Op.26/2, which was followed by the Danse macabre, Saint-Saëns working with inner resolve. Perhaps it lacked a little edginess but a really strong connection between the two was clear.

Fauré’s pupil Ravel was next, and Sicard found the exquisite, timeless quality of Kaddisch, its melodic inflections beautifully expressed and contrasting with the questioning L’Énigme Éternelle. Following this was Histoires Naturelles, the ideal choice given the festival’s theme. Cardona had a strong descriptive role to play, with some lovely detail portraying Crickets, and The Swan too, which had strong characterisation. The Guinea Fowl’s ‘rowdy and shrill’ ending was perfectly judged by the pair – as was an exquisite encore of Chanson française.

Later we further examined the link between teacher and student in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, as violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Martin Roscoe played sonatas by Saint-Saens and Faure. In an aside to the audience, Humphreys revealed it was the first time the duo had performed the Saint-Saens Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885), realising a long-held dream of playing a work in public she had loved since childhood.

The closer acoustics of the hall took a little while to adjust to – certainly on the live stream – but it was easy to admire the duo as they met the challenges of the busy first movement head on, getting beneath the tumultuous phrases to the deeper emotion below. The softer-hearted second theme, a chorale, with rippling arpeggios from the piano, reminded us that the Organ Symphony was not far off – and it was beautifully rendered here. A keenly felt Adagio led to a balletic third movement, initiated by Roscoe’s nicely pointed piano part. There was however a strong sense of everything pointing towards the finale. Its tremendous technical demands were comfortably conquered, but again the music’s feeling won the day, Humphreys playing winsome long phrases. Both players enjoyed the return of the ‘chorale’ theme, but also the peal of bells evoked by Roscoe from the piano.

Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 is an early work, written nine years earlier, when it was given a glowing review by his teacher. Humphreys spoke affectingly of its significance during lockdown, and it was clearly a tonic for her to be playing it again. The two players dovetailed beautifully, Roscoe’s flowing introduction picked up seamlessly by Humphreys’ lyrical phrases. The slow movement took time for deep thought, its gently undulating piano a foil for the violin’s probing melodies, gradually building to a deeply felt apex. The scherzo was winsome, its syncopations tripping over each other happily. An ardent account of the fourth movement found the players deep in conversation, right up to the end of this richly rewarding piece. It is difficult to write about what makes Fauré such an attractive composer – his gifts are plentiful but elusive – yet this performance had all the qualities that so impressed his teacher.

A strong cast of thirteen musicians assembled for a pair of concerts in the Saint John the Evangelist church. They were led by soprano Elizabeth Watts, and baritone Felix Kemp, with pianists Jâms Coleman, Martin Sturfält joined by principal players of the Echor Chamber Orchestra (Anna Wolstenholme (flute / piccolo), Jernej Albreht (clarinet), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Jonathan Stone and Sara Wolstenholme (violins), William Bender (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), Laurence Ungless (double bass)

It is funny to think Saint-Saëns prohibited performances of Le Carnaval des Animaux in his lifetime, for fear of being dismissed as a frivolous composer. In the event the suite was published a year after his death, and the piece has had an enduring appeal ever since. The Oxford Lieder edition recognised that appeal but interspersed his suite with an array of animal-based songs from contemporaries and countrymen, together with short readings from nonsense verse by Ogden Nash.

The programme was brilliantly conceived but was too big, including a total of 17 songs alongside the Carnival without a break, meaning the flow was difficult to pick up at times. That said, the imaginative set of works largely succeeded thanks to the artistry on stage. Watts’ versatility was evident in the oppressive heat of Chausson’s La Caravane, its powerful vocal line in thrall to Wagner, and also in the amusing tale of La Cigale et la fourmi as set by Offenbach, with some brilliant high notes at the end.

There was a striking duet between Watts and flautist Anna Wolstenholme, portraying Roussel’s Rossignol mon mignon, before the soprano found the nub of Hugo Wolf’s solemn Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen. Felix Kemp was an effective foil, capturing the micro portraits of animals as realised by Poulenc from Apollinaire’s poetry, as well as Britten’s elusive Fish in the unruffled lakes.

The Carnival itself was a huge amount of fun. From the boisterous Introduction and Royal March of the Lion onward, it was nice to see the performers enjoying themselves in this irrepressible music. Double bassist Laurence Ungless caught the character of The Elephant, lumbering into view, while The Swan was beautiful and effortless in the hands of Nathaniel Boyd. Pianists evinced some ready laughter, before we returned to Watts for the rather lovely final song, Grieg’s own portrayal of the swan, which found her using a third language of the evening. The Echor soloists wrapped up with a celebratory finale, putting the cap on a concert which may have been too long, but which was ultimately enjoyable.

A packed day ended with a late evening recital from Adèle Charvet & Anne Le Bozec. Subtitled Mélodies on Tour, their program began with three English-language songs – two about sleep from Gounod, by turns perky then lustrous, with a setting of Longfellow’s poem Sleep. Saint-Saëns himself was next, evoking a heady atmosphere with A Voice By The Cedar Tree but then agitated in La mort d’Ophélie, where Charvet held an impressively strong tone.

The recital alternated songs by our chosen composer with a well-chosen selection of eight songs from Pauline Viardot, to whom Saint-Saëns dedicated his opera Samson et Dalila. Her song Lamento was the most directly communicative song, and an indication of why she is finally starting to get the exposure she deserves in a male-dominated field. Noch’Yu, one of two Pushkin settings, was evocative in this setting, but the pick of the eight was Aimez Moi, which brought a rapt stillness to proceedings.

Saint-Saëns‘ two settings of Uhland featured a striking piece of writing in the low register during Antwort, very well handled by Charvet, then the composer exaggerating his feelings rather in Ruhetal. Later we heard Guitares et Mandolines, the composer relishing the chance to depict the instruments in Anne Le Bozec’s deft accompaniment. The agitated Tournoiement spun itself into an eternal whirlpool.

There was time for two songs from Massenet, another underrated songwriter – his Crépuscule and Nuit D’Espagne expertly crafted examples, the latter with a Habanera-like profile – to which we returned in Viardot’s Madrid. The context of these night-time songs helped put the seal on a fascinating and richly rewarding set of concerts, showing the strength of depth French composers have to offer.

For further information on this year’s Oxford Lieder festival, you can visit the event’s website here

On record: Elizabeth Watts, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony & Symphony no.4

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)*, David Butt Philip (tenor)**, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no.3)* (1921)
Symphony no.4 in F minor** (1931-4)
Saraband, ‘Helen’ (1913-4)

Hyperion CDA68280 [80’57”]
English text included
Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon

Recorded 26 & 27 November (Symphonies), 2 December 2018 (Helen), Watford Colosseum, UK

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra continue their cycle of the symphonies by Vaughan Williams with the Third and Fourth, two ostensibly very different pieces whose equally equivocal reception at their premieres now seems testament to their expressive reach.

What’s the music like?

No longer the relative rarity it once was, A Pastoral Symphony remains the most elusive of this cycle – its arcadian rapture shot-through with imagery of war and transience.

Brabbins sets a well-nigh ideal tempo for the opening movement, its deceptively passive interplay of landscape and evocation informed by eddying agitation made more explicit in its successor – whose distanced solos for horn and (offstage) trumpet afford concrete recollections of VW’s wartime experience, made the more poignant by being sensed on the edge of consciousness. For all its greater physicality, the third movement is no conventional scherzo in its eliding between moods with an agility finely conveyed here through Brabbins’s judicious pacing – not least that eerily flitting coda which forms an unerring transition to the finale. Its remote outer sections enhanced by Elizabeth Watts‘s yearning vocalise, this unfolds as a necessary culmination; the composer bringing to the fore emotions earlier half-glimpsed on the way to a powerfully wrought climax, leaving in its wake a catharsis more potent for its intangibility.

From here to the seismic eruption of the Fourth Symphony is to set forth on a very different journey, one of absolute expression in combat with force of circumstance. Brabbins keeps a firm yet flexible grip on the initial Allegro, its violent opening balanced by the fugitive calm into which it withdraws. He then finds the right ‘walking’ tempo for the Andante, this sombre if never featureless landscape underpinned by angular harmonic progressions that twice break out in ominous outbursts prior to the flute’s lamenting soliloquy towards its close. Perhaps the Scherzo’s outer sections could have evinced greater sardonic humour, though the overbearing pomposity of its trio is as finely judged as is the pulsating transition into the finale. Brabbins duly brings out its martial swagger and if tension during the earlier stages could be even more acute, the ghostly throwback at its centre yields a wan rapture and how persuasively he draws the thematic elements together in the epilogo fugato for a stretto of mounting tension whose denouement is a return to the work’s fateful opening gesture and a four-letter clinching chord.

As makeweight, Saraband ‘Helen’ proves an enticing discovery. Left unfinished towards the outbreak of the First World War, this setting of lines from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus may be off-balance in its utilizing tenor and chorus for what surely needed to become a larger entity, though both David Butt Philip and the BBC Symphony Chorus acquit themselves ably, while Brabbins secures playing of real elegance and finesse in orchestral writing that inadvertently yields what emerged as the main theme of Serenade to Music almost a quarter-century later.

Does it all work?

Almost entirely. Those who have acquired the earlier releases in this series (A Sea Symphony and A London Symphony) will be aware of the qualities which Brabbins brings to VW, and so it proves here with what is among the finest recent accounts of the Pastoral. Others have evinced a more visceral response in the Fourth, but there is no lack of impact – allied to a methodical sense of purpose that pays dividends in those densely contrapuntal passages over which the composer laboured before ultimately getting them right.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound has the sense of perspective but also immediacy necessary in this music, with Robert Matthew-Walker once again contributing a detailed and informative note. Hopefully the next instalment, featuring the Fifth (and Sixth?) Symphony, will not be long in coming.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read Arcana’s interview with the conductor here

Prom 14 – BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds: Single-movement Sibelius, Zimmermann, Schubert & Wagner

Prom 14: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic OrchestraJohn Storgårds

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act One (c1861)
Schubert (orch. Liszt) Four Songs (1825/1815/1826/1815, orch. 1860)
Zimmermann Symphony in One Movement (1947-51, rev. 1953)
Schubert (arr. Liszt) Fantasy in C, D760, ‘Wanderer’ (1822, arr. c1850)
Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (1924)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 24 July 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

John Storgårds has given some enterprising concerts during his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and this evening’s Prom was a further instance with its programme of mainly one-movement pieces and an underlying emphasis on symphonic cohesion, even unity.

The exception was the sequence of four songs by Schubert, arranged for orchestra by Liszt so that a tenuous cohesion is evident – without this being a song-cycle as such. Elizabeth Watts (below) duly had the measure of their predominantly sombre sentiments – ranging from the distanced recollection of Die junge Nonne, via remorseless passing of experiential time in Gretchen am Spinnrade and speculative radiance of Lied der Mignon, to visceral representation of fate in Erlkönig. Storgårds teased many subtleties from Liszt’s judiciously restrained orchestration.

Preceding this came a surprisingly dour account of the Prelude from The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. This grandest of Wagner music-dramas is also the most symphonic, not least its Prelude as it deftly outlines a four-movements-in-one format. While not being oblivious to this, Storgårds might have characterized these episodes more potently, though this may have been in line with his tendency to play down the music’s opulence and majesty. What resulted was a subdued and earnest performance that hardly marked him out as a budding Wagnerian.

Concluding the first half was the Symphony in One Movement by Bernd Alois Zimmermann; a timely hearing in this centenary year of the composer’s birth. Although the more discursive original version (complete with organ histrionics) has recently been revived, this revision is audibly more focussed in form and expression as it traverses a quirky yet combative sonata design – (modified!) exposition repeat included – before emerging full circle in a mood of unbridled ferocity. Storgårds was at his interpretative best here, maintaining a tensile course over an eventful score where influences of mid-century symphonism do not outface pointers to the intricacy or intensity of Zimmermann’s mature music. A notably enthusiastic reception suggested that tonight’s audience ‘got’ what the composer was about in this singular piece.

Time was when Liszt’s concertante realization of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was a staple at these concerts, but this was only the second hearing in nearly six decades. 33 years ago, the soloist was Jorge Bolet at his unpredictable best, but Louis Lortie’s rendition (above) was altogether subtler as he brought out the pathos of the Andante then jocularity of the Presto. If the outer Allegro sections felt reined-in, this was not at the expense of that keen virtuosity informing Lortie’s playing in his solo passages or coruscating interplay with the orchestra at the close.

A century on, Sibelius not only ran movements together in his Seventh Symphony but fused them into a seamless and powerfully cumulative whole. Storgårds was certainly alive to this in what was a purposeful and often insightful reading; a little unsettled in those introductory pages, perhaps, but thereafter gauging the various transitions with a sure sense of where this music was headed while investing the vertiginous trombone entries with implacable majesty. One of this season’s most absorbing concerts thus far was brought to an impressive close.

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan (sopranos), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Royal College of Music Brass Band (Variations), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.2, ‘A London Symphony’ (1918 version)
Sound sleep (1903)
Orpheus with his lute (1901/3)
Variations (1957)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from discs devoted to Elgar and Walton, Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this first instalment of his Vaughan Williams cycle, coupled with three relatively little-heard pieces from either end of the composer’s lengthy creative span.

What’s the music like?

Significantly, Brabbins has chosen the ‘second version’ of A London Symphony as revised in 1918 and published in 1920. Closer in its formal proportions to the streamlined 1933 revision than the expansive 1913 original, this features additional passages in the second and fourth movements, but it is the textural richness and subtlety which comes through most strongly in this account – among the most overtly alluring yet recorded. Rarely has Vaughan Williams’s later bemusement as to how he achieved such beauty of sound in this piece felt more apposite.

Beginning barely perceptibly, the opening movement unfolds from hazy evocation to one of London ‘in full swing’ and Brabbins captures such a progression unerringly – as he does that of the central interlude with its enfolding calm and opening-out of emotional space prior to a resumption of the earlier activity then a coda whose imposing rhetoric is never overbearing. Even finer is the ensuing Lento, outwardly a depiction of Bloomsbury Square one November afternoon though more pressingly a meditation on time and place which builds to climaxes of sustained expressive intensity. Brabbins gauges these superbly, then draws the extra material found in the coda into a seamless continuity of serene recollection. Rarely, moreover, have the numerous woodwind and string solos been rendered with such felicity as by the BBCSO.

A scherzo designated ‘nocturne’ might present problems of characterization and pacing, but neither is an issue here – Brabbins opting for a relaxed though never sluggish tempo such as underlines that teasing reticence to the fore in the fatalistic coda. The finale follows on with due inevitability – its heartfelt initial ‘cry’ launching a movement whose sectional unfolding feels more than usually cohesive as it takes in halting processional and forthright march on the way to a culmination where anguish and that sense of teetering on the brink are palpably conveyed. Brabbins takes his time in the ‘Epilogue’, slightly more extended than it became while evincing that steady emergence from anxiety to affirmation as brings the whole work affectingly full circle. Rarely have these closing pages conveyed so much of a benediction.

Does it all work?

Absolutely, and the fill-ups are a further enhancement. Heard in its version for three female voices, the setting of Christina Rosetti’s Sound sleep audibly anticipates Serenade to Music almost four decades hence – with Elizabeth Watts no less touching in that of Shakespeare’s Orpheus with his lute likely written for a staging of Henry VIII. Almost Vaughan Williams’s last completed work, Variations is better known as orchestrated by Gordon Jacob – though its intricately intertwined sections and final chorale are thrown into starker relief by brass band.

Is it recommended?

Indeed – not least when the sound has ideal spaciousness and definition, along with probing annotations by Robert Matthew-Walker. Fine as was Martin Yates’s recent account (Dutton), that from Brabbins is undoubtedly the recording of the ‘1920 London Symphony’ to go for.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here

On record: Alessandro Scarlatti – Con eco d’amore

scarlatti-watts

The extremely promising young soprano Elizabeth Watts delivers a stunning disc of arias from operas and cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, in the company of The English Concert and Laurence Cummings. The disc is released by Harmonia Mundi

What’s the music like?

Elizabeth Watts and Laurence Cummings deliver a well-chosen selection of arias here, representing the many and varied moods the Italian baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti can conjure up in his vocal works.

We move from the high energy bout between soprano and trumpet, Se geloso è il mio core, to the dreamy Mentr’io godo in dolce oblio, in arias tending to last between three and five minutes. Scarlatti is a very expressive composer, responding to the words with music that taxes his performers.

Does it all work?

Without question. The levels of musicianship here are uncommonly high, and that’s before we even get to talking about Elizabeth Watts. Trumpeter Mark Bennett is outstanding in his role as the soprano’s opponent in Se geloso è il mio core, the sort of work in which composers of Scarlatti’s day specialised. Violinist Huw Daniel is then exceptionally good in his role as soloist in the cadenzas of Esci omai.

Yet it is nonetheless Watts who steals the show, because she can go from the high register bravura of Figlio! Tiranno! O Dio! to the withdrawn, sensitive singing of Nacque, col Gran Messia and the sparing use of vibrato for the opening strains of Ombre opache, a lament from the cantata Correa Nel Seno Amato, which contains arguably the most powerful music here.

The real technical showstopper is D’Amor l’accesa face, from the serenata Venere, Amore e Ragione, where Cupid warns against showing too much desire. Watts’ performance suggests the opposite is in fact the case!

Cummings and The English Concert are very fine image painters, and their dramatic orchestral response in the recitativo from Erminia, Qui, dove al germogliar, is illustrative of the power they have at their disposal – and Cummings secures from them particularly careful attention to detail on the volume of their contributions.

Is it recommended?

Unreservedly. With performances of great enthusiasm and technical command, you will find few if any discs of the Baroque era to better this one in 2015.

Listen on Spotify

You can hear Con eco d’amore on Spotify here: