Oxford Lieder Festival – Alessandro Fisher & Gary Matthewman: An Italian Songbook

Alessandro Fisher (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano, below)

Bellini Malinconia, ninfa gentile, Per pietà bell’idol mio, Ma rendi pur contento (all 1829)
Donizetti Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa (1837), Lu trademiento (1842)
Verdi Il poveretto (1847), Il tramonto (1845), Brindisi (1845)
Tosti ‘A vucchella (1907), Sogno (1886)
Hahn Venezia (1901)

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The spectacular round of the Sheldonian Theatre proved the ideal setting for tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Gary Matthewman, with an attractive Italian recital continuing the Grand Tour theme of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Fisher proved a consummate storyteller, and his asides to the audience between songs were ideally judged and set the music of the concert in context. There was deep, romantic love, humour and much merrymaking to be had over the course of the hour!

Photo (c) Johan Persson

Fisher and the ever-attentive pianist Matthewman filled the first half of their recital with songs from Italian composers known primarily for their opera – and indeed it did feel as though the tenor was singing excerpts from bigger, stage-bound works. The Bellini songs were straight and to the point – melodic and responsive to their text. Donizetti showed off the voice in Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa (I want to build a house) but cut straight to the heart in Lu trademiento (The treachery).

Three songs by Verdi were of rich variety – the downtrodden Il poveretto (The poor man) led to the rather moving Il tramonto (Twilight) before Fisher and Matthewman cast all cares aside for Brindisi (A toast). Sporting a different musical response to the famous aria of the same name from La Traviata, this was a riotous celebration of wine.

The songs of Tosti are highly respected but still quite rare in concert hall recitals, so it was good to hear a consummate master of the form at work in ‘A vucchella (A sweet mouth) and Sogno (Dream), passionately sung.

The concert’s second part told the story of Hahn’s Venezia, where Matthewman painted the watery settings of the opening song Sopra l’acqua indormenzada (Upon the sleeping waters), the undulations of La barcheta (The little boat) and the heady atmosphere of La biondina in gondoleta (The fair maiden in a gondoleta). Fisher was a very entertaining guide to the ups and downs of love in Venice for the subject, no more so than in Che peca! (What a shame!) where he had all the requisite mannerisms to cast off his ‘only thought’ Nina, to the amusement of the audience – but perhaps the best was left for last, a celebration of La primavera (The springtime) to round off the cycle in some style.

Fisher’s bright tenor sound was also ideally suited to the encore, Leoncavallo’s Mattinata, which provided further evidence of the strength of his partnership with Matthewman. With such colourful song set under the equally bright roof of the Sheldonian, it was a match to remember.

Further listening

You can hear the repertoire from this concert on the Spotify playlist below. Alessandro Fisher has yet to record any of the Italian songs, so leading alternative versions have been used:

Meanwhile Fisher himself appears in a new recording from Classical Opera and Ian Page of Mozart’s Grabmusik and Bastien Und Bastienne:

Wigmore Mondays – Britten and Auden from Robin Tritschler & Gary Matthewman

robin-tritschler

Robin Tritschler (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 4 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zd45

Available until 4 May

Britten To lie flat on the back; Fish in the unruffled lakes; Berkeley Night covers up the rigid land (1939); Underneath the abject willow (1941); Berkeley Lay your sleeping head, my love (1937), Britten: When you’re feeling like expressing your affection (17 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten The Jolly Miller (1946), The Ash Grove (1941), The Salley Gardens (1940), The Bonny Earl O’ Moray (1940); The Foggy, Foggy Dew (1942) (12 minutes)

Tippett 3 Songs for Ariel (1961) (5 minutes)

Britten On This Island, Op.11 (1937) (14 minutes)

Spotify

If you cannot access the concert, the below Spotify playlist contains all the songs. Robin Tritschler has yet to record these, but they are given here in versions from Philip Langridge:

About the music

Both the personality and the poetry of W.H. Auden were a revelation to the young Benjamin Britten when he was living in New York…and not just Britten either, for Lennox Berkeley also fell briefly under the poet’s spell.

His unique and highly descriptive way with the English language was a perfect foil for song composers such as Britten and Berkeley in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and here are some choice settings that use the piano as well as the verse to paint vivid pictures.

A selection of Britten’s folksong settings follow, with familiar tunes in songs such as The Ash Grove and The Foggy, Foggy Dew given new clothes from Britten.

The Shakespeare 400th celebrations are marked with the music of Sir Michael Tippett, all too infrequently performed these days. His 3 Songs for Ariel are brief but concentrated miniatures.

Finally Britten’s first published collection of songs, On This Island, is a quintet of Auden settings, not as closely linked as subsequent song cycles such as the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings or Winter Words, but showing his increasing prowess as a song composer.

Performance verdict

Robin Tritschler is a natural in the music of Britten, and clearly enjoyed the nuances of Auden’s poetry as he sang these songs. With Gary Matthewman an excellent, attentive accompanist he caught the tension of this period in Britten’s life, where the young composer was trying to find his feet but also feeling the pressure of being a member of Auden’s ‘circle’.

Tritschler sings with great clarity – the words are always easy to hear – and Matthewman matches his ear for detail with some virtuosic piano playing that somehow sounds effortless.

What should I listen out for?

W.H. Auden selection

1:59 – Britten To lie flat on the back

4:27 – Britten Fish in the unruffled lakes – an incredibly vivid picture of the water issues forth from the piano, followed with an oblique melody that is somehow memorable, fitting Auden’s poetry perfectly. The twinkling right hand of the piano finishes the song.

6:59 – Berkeley Night covers up the rigid land

9:38 – Britten Underneath the abject willow – a poem of Auden’s that again has very pictorial references that Britten delights in referring to in his piano part. A bracing main part leads to a softer, shadowy central section, before the bracing theme returns (10:44)

11:33 – Berkeley Lay your sleeping head, my love – a soft lulling to sleep from the piano chords that toll softly, before a caring and rather romantic vocal is revealed. From around 14:40 a powerful climax is reached.

17:10 – Britten When you’re feeling like expressing your affection – a humorous advert for using the telephone that is also quite affecting personally.

Trad, arr Britten

19:49 The Jolly Miller (from Hullah’s song-book) Britten’s ability to paint a picture through his piano accompaniments is put to especially vivid use here, the waters swirling rather ominously around the miller. The constant clash of notes gives the setting a rather darker air, as the idea of the ‘jolly miller’ is given a twist by the final line, ‘I care for nobody, no not I, if nobody cares for me’.

22:04 The Ash Grove (Trad) A deceptively simple beauty. The graceful melody gets the ideal response from Britten here, as he uses one of his favourite musical forms – the canon – to keep the melody on the piano running at a distance of half a bar behind the voice. The graceful but slightly watery piano part sets up a mood of reflection, until later in the song when voice and piano part company, at which point the piano heads into a completely different key. Britten’s genius is fully at work here, and The Ash Grove becomes less folk song, more English ‘Lied’. It is a strangely unsettling song.

24:30 The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) A simple, yearning song that makes the most of its beautiful melody. There is a deep sense of longing in the harmonies Britten chooses to go with the tune here, and he achieves this as early as possible in the piano introduction, despite the words remaining largely positive until the revelation at the end that ‘now I am full of tears’.

27:08 The Bonny Earl O’Moray (Trad) Britten’s setting is a regal funeral march, an invitation for the singer to completely let rip against a piano accompaniment that has grand pretensions too. He moves between the major and minor key rather like Schubert used to do, keeping the listener guessing until the downcast end in the minor.

29:12 The foggy, foggy dew (Trad) Britten’s piano is appropriately cheeky, offering a nod and a wink to the listener outside of its Schubert influence, and it’s a memorable tune that sticks in the head for a while after listening.

Tippett (words by Shakespeare)

33:11 Come unto those yellow sands Tippett uses a florid vocal line here, a direct influence from Purcell. The words are clear, the piano accompaniment fast moving – and at the end the tenor evokes a dog barking

35:08 Full fathom five A solemn song with Tippett’s imagery of the ‘ding dong bell’ striking both in the vocal and piano lines.

36:46 Where the bee sucks Quite a jumpy setting this, with Tippett’s jaunty, staccato piano introduction finding a match in the tenor’s line.

Britten – On This Island (W.H. Auden)

39:38 Let the florid music praise! A grand opening to the collection, the tenor’s declamation matched by a busy, regal piano line. The mood turns, however, into a more carefully considered and slightly sorrowful song.

43:07 Now the leaves are falling fast The detached piano figures reflect the tension in this song. interpreted by Humphrey Carpenter as laced with sexual frustration. Carpenter’s commentary on this period of Britten’s life is thoroughly engaging, bringing through the tensions of grief versus the true beginning of the composer’s adulthood.

45:12 Seascape A more agile song, this, but a restless one too – perhaps because of its evocation of the rising and falling tide in the piano part.

47:28 Nocturne The finest song of the five, where Britten’s simplicity wins through – as does Auden’s poetry, talking of ‘night’s caressing grip’. This is a very moving song, the slow tolling of the piano enhancing its impact – and reminding us that it is a lament for Britten’s recently departed friend, Peter Burra.

51:38 As it is, plenty A typically ‘smart’ Auden poem that gets a similar response from Britten. The piano part is like pointed footsteps, until gradually the celebratory mood of the first song in the collection asserts itself towards the end.

Encore

54:27 Fishing by Arthur Oldham, Britten’s only pupil on his return to England from America. Even in the incredibly brief 40 seconds of this song, taken from the Five Chinese Lyrics, you get a sense of the influence!

Further listening

English song is a maligned but very enjoyable musical area – and arguably the best people to take us through it are the tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Here is their album The English Songbook: