Wigmore Mondays – Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

Elizabeth Watts, Photo : Marco Borggreve

Elizabeth Watts, Photo : Marco Borggreve

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06kb0f0

on the iPlayer until 25 November

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify (which do not include the Liszt song Quand tu chantes bercée).

What’s the music?

Liszt: 6 settings of poetry by Victor Hugo (dates are for first versions only): Enfant, si j’étais roi (1849); S’il est un charmant gazon (1844); Comment, disaient-ils (1842); La tombe et la rose (1844); Quand tu chantes bercée (c1844-45); Oh! quand je dors (1842) (21 minutes)

Debussy: Ariettes oubliées (1885-1887) (17 minutes)

Hahn: 4 Hugo settings: Rêverie (1888); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888); L’Incrédule (1893); Fêtes galantes (1892) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

A recital bringing together some richly varied settings of two French poets, Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.

It also gives us the opportunity to listen to some of the large output of Franz Liszt, who is best known for his piano music but whose songs have enjoyed greater prominence in recent years. He and the poet Victor Hugo were friends, meeting in Paris in the 1830s, and Liszt went on to set a number of his poems to music.

Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs) is a cycle of six songs for voice and piano, based on a poem written by Paul Verlaine, who the composer knew and whose verse was a profound influence throughout the composer’s career.

We return to Victor Hugo for several settings by the Venezuelan-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn, who is best known for his song settings. This group of four includes Si mes vers avaient des ailes, the song that really brought Hahn to public attention and which, in the words of Graham Johnson, ‘has become his motto song’.

Performance verdict

A note first of all to say Arcana did not attend this concert, so the review is directly from the radio performance.

What is abundantly clear is that Elizabeth Watts is becoming a soloist of real repute, and one who has a very impressive and diverse repertoire. It was especially gratifying to hear her accounts of the Hugo settings by Liszt, not heard much in the concert hall but invested with real passion here, Watts floating effortlessly through the high notes as Julius Drake set the scene. Drake is an experienced pianist in Liszt songs, and is in the process of recording his output for Hyperion – and his ability to find the detail to point up alongside the vocal line was a real asset.

The Debussy had an essential mystique that Drake was quick to create in his piano part, Watts controlling her voice wonderfully well in the tricky melodic intervals. Meanwhile the Hahn selection sparkled, showing off this composer’s flair for word setting as well as the natural chemistry between Watts and Drake.

What should I listen out for?

Liszt

1:57 Enfant, si j’étais roi (Child, if I were king) translation here – a typically grand setting from Liszt, with a big piano part, while the soprano sings boldly above. A brave piece with which to start a recital! In the second verse the piano adopts a more threatening bass line as the soprano extols the virtue of a kiss from her lover.

5:13 S’il est un charmant gazon (If there’s a lovely grassy plot) translation here – a more gentle and loving song, this, with a similar mood to the opening of Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.2. The music flows with a mood of relative contentment.

7:41 Comment, disaient-ils (How then, asked he) translation here a nervy piano accompaniment immediately puts this song on each, though the floated higher vocal counters that somewhat. This is a short song but the high note at the end from the soprano carries a lasting impact.

9:49 La tombe et la rose (The tomb says to the rose) translation here This time we hear the soprano in a much lower range and with a fuller voice as Liszt takes on the much heavier text. There is weight in the piano part, too, though here as with a couple of the other songs it feels like Liszt has a short attention span.

13:44 Quand tu chantes bercée (When you sing in the evening) translation here This song has much softer contours, with a restful piano part and a relatively smooth vocal line for the soprano. That is not to say passion is lacking though, especially when the soprano sings ‘Chantez, ma belle’ (‘Sing, my pretty one’)

16:17 Oh! quand je dors (Oh! When I sleep) translation here As the title suggests here is a lullaby, though this one doubles as a love song. Again the soprano has to sing high, especially given the passion of Hugo’s text. The piano immediately sets the scene of rapture.

Debussy

The words for Ariettes oubliées are here

24:12 – C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is ecstasy) A heady song as you might expect from the title, which hangs on the air heavily. This whole impression is helped by Debussy’s chromatic writing, with soprano and piano right hand often in unison. The rich harmonies and melodies might sound awkward in isolation but, in a performance such as this, they are totally natural.

27:28 – Il pleure dans mon cœur…(It weeps in my heart) One of Debussy’s most celebrated early songs, delighting – or finding sorrow, rather – in the sound of the rain ‘on the ground and on the roofs’. A wide range is called for on the part of the soprano, not to mention the restless yet easily flowing piano part.

30:28 – L’ombre de arbres (The shadow of the trees) ‘The shadow of the trees, in the mist-covered river’ find the soprano beginning in a lower range, the air thick with humidity. This is a more sorrowful lament, the piano essentially standing by while the singer emotes – nowhere more so than the high note of 32:06.

33:14 – Chevaux de bois (Merry-go-round) A brilliant evocation of the fairground, the merry-go-round burling around dizzily on the piano, over which the soprano sings of the hurrying horses. Debussy’s quick moving harmonies are ideally suited to this sort of setting. The song ends quietly.

36:31 – Green A love song. The soprano has to travel quite a way in the course of this song, from low asides to higher outpourings of intense feeling. The twinkling of the piano’s right hand provides an effective counterpoint.

38:36 – Spleen A downcast song, reflecting on how ‘all my despair is reborn’. This does still take place over some exotic harmony on the part of the composer, the song moving far and wide in its melodic and harmonic reach.

Hahn

43:09 – Rêverie – translation here A halting figure on the piano feels like an offbeat waltz, accompanying the soprano as she sings, lingering on the word ‘kiss’. The song is relatively conventional in its structure.

45:11 – Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings) – translation here – a bright and positive love song, the singer clearly lost in thoughts of her beloved – and reaching some beautifully spun high notes along the way, with twinkling piano account. The last notes need particularly impressive control as the music slows.

47:52 L’Incrédule (The Sceptic) – translation here – a softly coloured but rather moving song, which has its conviction in the last lines, where the singer declares ‘And my faith is so deep in all that I believe in that I live for you alone’

50:11 Fêtes galantes – translation here – one of Hahn’s most endearing songs to close, the sparkling piano introduction keeping a detached feel as the singer spins higher notes above. The ‘shivering breeze’ is brilliantly evoked in the piano.

Encores

53:32 An encore of a Victor Hugo setting, L’Attente, (1840) from Richard Wagner. As Elizabeth Watts says to the audience, it’s not exactly easy – whether it’s the full bodied, high register vocal or the heavily congested piano part!

 

Further listening

Something completely different to complement Elizabeth Watts’ artistry, and also to show just how versatile she is. This is a recently released album of vocal works by the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti, given with The English Concert and Laurence Cummings:

https://open.spotify.com/album/1Crx7DHWHCAqV7za0K80oX

 

 

Ailish Tynan and James Baillieu – French Song at the Wigmore Hall

French Song at the Wigmore Hall

ailish-tynan

Ailish Tynan (soprano), James Baillieu (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 22 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05zh7pr

on the iPlayer until 21 July

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found below:

What’s the music?

Hahn: Fêtes galantes; En sourdine; A Chloris (various) (9 minutes)

Poulenc: La courte paille (1960) (11 minutes)

Poulenc: Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin (1937) (7 minutes)

Hahn: Venezia – Chansons en dialecte vénitien (1901) (16 minutes)

What about the music?

There is something rather special about a recital of French songs, and this intriguing program brings together one of its best exponents – the soprano Ailish Tynan – and one of the best up and coming accompanists, pianist James Baillieu. Of course to call him an ‘accompanist’ recognises just how important that role is, setting the tone and providing the colour.

The two composers here are well matched, despite their very different styles of writing. Reynaldo Hahn, born in Venezuela but moving to Paris when three years old, is best known for his songs, especially settings of Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine. The BBC Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch sums up the songs in the first trio as ‘a group of young men serenading their beloveds, the piano imitating a mandolin’ (Fêtes galantes), ‘a muted nocturnal love song’ (En sourdine) and ‘a love poem set with a loving nod to Bach (A Chloris). In contrast the cycle of five songs Venezia glorifies the gondoliers in the city, setting it as ‘the elegant playground of the rich and famous’, in Graham Johnson’s words.

Francis Poulenc, meanwhile, is completely different, writing with economy but also with an appealing brashness and humour that mean he gets away with some pretty outrageous settings. There are touching moments too, though, and in his last song cycle La coute paille (The short straw) he sets seven nonsense rhymes, a present for realised in music for the singer Denise Duval, so that she could sing them to her young boy. The simplicity of Poulenc’s musical language is perfectly suited to the text.

Complementing this is a short mini-cycle of poems set in 1937 to the poetry of another good friend, Louise de Vilmorin.

Performance verdict

Ailish Tynan is in her element in this sort of program, and the combination of Poulenc with Hahn is not one to miss. Poulenc can never resist humour in his songs and Tynan makes it her mission to seek it out, from the zany and oddball moments of La coute paille to the heady eroticism of his three de Vilmorin settings.

The performance of Venezia is glorious, and even listening on the radio you can tell just how much fun she gets from Che pecà. Before then however there are the heady heights of La barcheta, Tynan’s voice both flexible and incredibly well controlled.

James Baillieu’s setting of each scene is also carefully managed and vividly painted.

What should I listen out for?

Hahn

1:11 – Fêtes galantes A lively song, begun by the clang of the piano in the upper register, and a playful interplay between him and the singer, who has quite an unusual contour to the melodic line.

3:05 – En sourdine (Softly) A slower and much more languorous affair this, and it’s easy to imagine a hot and sultry evening where nobody is able to sleep. Verlaine’s text has something else in mind, reflected by Tynan’s wonderful higher note at 6’12” or thereabouts.

6:42 – À Chloris (To Chloris) the tread of the bass line and the profile are indeed similar to Bach, a kind of equivalent to his Sleepers Awake. Baillieu introduces the song with an admirable calm, before the rapturous entry of the singer. This rather wonderful song finishes softly at 10:08.

Poulenc

La courte paille (The short straw) – with words here

11:37 – Le sommeiil (Sleep) A light and graceful song to start the cycle – though there is a dark underside to it, as ‘sleep is on vacation’ and the mother is frustrated.

13:35 – Quelle aventure! (What an adventure!) This song trips along with outbursts in the higher register of the voice, reflecting the nonsense text of the flea pulling an elephant in a carriage. A surreal dream!

14:46 – La reine de cœur (The Queen of Hearts) This sleepy song depicts the enchantment of the queen, beckoning the listener into her castle.

16:40 – Ba, be, bi, bo, bu The nonsense is evident in the spiky piano part – depicting the cat who has put his boots on! – and in Tynan’s shrieks and whoops, brilliantly stage managed. It’s all over in a flash!

17:16 – Les anges musiciens (The musician angels) A more sombre and graceful affair, again suggesting the onset of sleep as the angels play Mozart on their harps

18:42 – Le carafon (The baby carafe) The alternation in the vocal part between swoops and gliding notes gives an indication of the surreal nature of the text.

20:01 – Lune d’Avril (April moon) Initially lost in thought, this final song of the cycle builds to an impressive climax

Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

23:45 – Le garçon de Liège (The boy of Liège) A fast moving and breathless song with plenty of ‘wrong’ notes in the piano part.

25:16 – Au-delà A colourful piano introduction alternating between two chords as the singer goes on a breathless voyage of self-examination.

26:43 – Aux officiers de la Garde Blanche (To the officers of the White Guard) A thoughtful mood runs through this song, which Graham Johnson notes to be unusual in Poulenc’s output for its contemplation.

Hahn

Ailish Tynan introduces this cycle as a portrayal of ‘sultry, steamy, sensual Venice – where young men lure you into gondolas’!

32:18 – Sopra l’acqua indormenzada (Asleep on the water) This song is notable for its high and clear sound from the soprano, as she entreats her subject to join her in the boat. As part of this she stylishly glides between notes, occasionally sliding between them (a technique known as ‘portamento’)

36:01 – La barcheta (The little boat) The boat itself is home to simmering passion in a minor key. There is a really nice ornamentation to the melody, then a vocalise on the word ‘Ah’ at the end of each verse.

39:26 – L’avertimento (The warning) An urgent song warning the lads off ‘the lovely Nana’, who ‘has the heart of a tiger’. There is an impressive outburst at the end.

41:02 – La biondina in gondoleta (The blonde girl in the gondola) A slower and longer song, describing the raptures of an encounter with the blonde girl. Heady music, with a breathless final verse!

45:35 – Che pecà! (What a shame) Described by Tynan as ‘one of my favourite songs of all time’, this is a stuttering march, perhaps suggesting the rickety man of the text. Tynan’s voice rings out on the high notes, before the ‘Che pecà’ response, a distinctive reply, falls lower down the scale to comedic effect.

Encores

48:59 The boy From… by Mary Rogers, with words by Stephen Sondheim. A send-up of The Girl from Ipanema. You may be able to hear Ailish dedicating the song to the Director of Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly, before vividly illustrating her comic powers!

52:41 – Extase by the French composer Henri Duparc (1848-1933) The other side of the singer in a carefully controlled but poignant account.

Further listening

If you enjoyed this recital then the next recommendation can only be for more Ailish Tynan, for she is wonderful in French song. Here she is in a disc of Fauré, with the pianist Iain Burnside. Well worth hearing for the composer’s open-air writing style!

For more concerts click here

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber perform an intricate sequence of portraits of literary figures by Wolf, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hahn and Duparc

christiane-karg-gerold-huberChristiane Karg and Gerold Huber – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 9 February 2015. Photos © Steven Haberland / Albert Lindmeier

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051zyhb

on the iPlayer until 8 April

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist. Christiane has recorded the Strauss songs but nothing else from the program, so I have chosen suitable available versions:

What’s the music?

Wolf4 Mignon Lieder (1888) (15 minutes)

Brahms and Richard Strauss – Ophelia Lieder (interspersed – the music is Brahms’ 5 Ophelia-Lieder (1873) and Strauss’s 3 Ophelia Lieder Op.67 (1918) followed by Saint-SaënsLa mort d’Ophélie (1857) (14 minutes in total)

Hahn – 3 songs (Lydé (1900), A Chloris (1916) and Séraphine (1896) (8 minutes)

Duparc – 2 songs (Phidylé (1882), Romance de Mignon (1869) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

wigmore-portraits
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection. His painting influenced the image in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

This is a really well chosen program from Karg and Huber, justifying the singer’s burning of the midnight oil (in the announcer’s anecdote!) to come up with some vivid character portraits that draw the casual listener in through the links between the songs. This is surely how a song recital should be structured.

Thanks to their enterprise we get an interesting blend of Romantic Lieder – that is, nineteenth century song writing that is much more obviously expressive. German composers are strongly represented, beginning with Wolf’s four settings of Goethe, and his poems on the tragic figure of Mignon.

Then our gaze turns to Ophelia, by way of five early Brahms Lieder and three late, eccentric interpretations by Richard Strauss – before a French alternative from Saint-Saëns.

Finally the heady fragrance of three sublime songs from Hahn and two more substantial, meaty efforts from Duparc clinch a consistently engaging recital.

Performance verdict

On this evidence – listening on the radio rather than in the hall – Karg and Huber are ideally matched. Their delivery is especially emotive during the Wolf, where the soprano inhabits a lot of the distress and strife handed out to Mignon.

It is a great idea to fuse the portraits of Ophelia in this way, and anyone approaching Brahms songs for the first time would be surprised at the brevity and simplicity of them. They contrast nicely with the Richard Strauss examples, where Karg shows a lot of vocal agility without ever losing control.

The French songs are sumptuous, especially the Hahn, throwing open the doors to let in some Spring light.

What should I listen out for?

Wolf

The words for these songs can be found here

1:55 – Heiss mich nicht reden (Bid me not speak) – the first Mignon setting moves in unexpected harmonic directions, never really sure of itself as Mignon seeks peace ‘in the arms of a friend’. Judging by the piano postlude this is not found.

5:04 – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only those who know yearning) – a sombre minor-key opening from the piano.

7:25 – So lasst mich scheinen (Let me seem to be an angel) – a cold piano sound and a distracted vocal. Again the harmonies move restlessly, as does the melody, the song in a dream state but not at rest either.

10:47 – Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land)– a rather more positive outlook in this relatively relaxed song until a sudden outburst from the piano, which on its second appearance follows a particularly fraught passage from the soprano.

Brahms / Richard Strauss

The words for the Brahms can be found here, and for the Richard Strauss here

18:57 – the first of five very brief Brahms songs – this one a thoughtful melody with singer and piano together.

19:42 – the second Brahms song, a mere 20 seconds!

20:06 – the first Strauss song inhabits a weird world of a piano part seemingly cut loose from its moorings, and a melody that doesn’t have an obvious resting point. Mysterious but intriguingly so.

22:37 – the third Brahms song, a much brighter affair.

23:12 – the second Strauss song trips along in a state of high agitation but is perhaps too short to make a sustained impact.

24:44 – the fourth Brahms song, another incredibly brief number – but beautifully delivered here.

25:32 – the fifth Brahms song – even though it is a minute long there is still a distinctive melody here.

26:49 – the third Strauss song, and a deeply mysterious one that casts its spell immediately through the piano line, broken momentarily by outbursts in the middle and at the end.

Saint-Saëns

29:58 – an urgent song from the French composer, with the high soprano voice doubled by the left hand of the piano.

Hahn

The words for the Hahn songs are to be found here

35:04 – Lydé – a much more positive outlook is immediately evident in this song, with an open air texture and bright vocal. There is a grand piano postlude, and what sounds like a wrong note.

37:50 – A Chloris – a twinkling piano introduction has a melodic ornamentation that takes its lead from Bach’s AIr on the G string before the soprano arrives in a lower register. A contemplative song, one of Hahn’s very best, this is beautifully sung by Karg. The interaction with the piano is ideal.

40:33 – Séraphine – a calm and radiant atmosphere runs through the third Hahn song.

Duparc

The words for the Duparc songs can be found here

43:28 – Phidylé – Karg sounds imperious in her control of the fuller melody that makes the second part of this song. The exotic musical language is very much in thrall to Wagner, and reaches its peak with high notes and turbulent, stormy piano writing.

48:15 – Romance de Mignon – another perfumed song, but this is an early song suppressed by the composer. Duparc writes so well for the voice.

Encore

54:00 – Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade – going back to the first composer to write about the ‘mad woman’ Mignon, as Karg describes her. Huber shapes the piano part superbly under Karg’s urgent vocal.

Want to hear more?

It is difficult to suggest another step after such an intriguing and well-thought program, but underneath the songs of on the Spotify link above are further possibilities – including Wolf’s remarkable Prometheus, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, in a legendary recording from Jessye Norman, and to finish some more Duparc.

For more concerts click here