This concert was mounted to raise money (and, presumably, profile) for this highly deserving cause. The Young Singers’ Welfare Foundation supports classical singers in the UK who suffer financial hardship as a result of serious illness or medical condition. Illness always has a serious effect on work patterns but when one is a self employed singer clearly the results can be catastrophic. Under the aegis of Sir Thomas Allen the foundation had assembled an enviable roster of singers to give a varied programme of serious (and some not so serious) music. Unfortunately the problem with any gala programme is that it is difficult to impose any sort of theme on the evening and this was particularly applicable to this concert. A few less performers might have made the organisers’ task somewhat easier. However one has to admire their success in attracting performers of this calibre to donate their services in an excellent cause.
After a brief introduction from Jennifer Johnston who, as well as being one of the performers, is also a trustee of the Foundation, Thomas Allen took the stage for La Partenza by Beethoven. Set to a text by Metastasio, this early song already shows promise of greater things to come if without the mastery of later settings. Allen gently caught the comparatively unassuming atmosphere of the song and evoked the autumnal regret of “E tu, chi sa se mai. Ti sovverai di me?” (And you, who knows if ever you will remember me?). To follow this with “Benedeit die sel’ger Mutter” from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch admittedly did the Beethoven no favours but at least it continued the theme of German composers setting Italian texts! One of the joys of this song was Malcolm Martineau’s peerless accompaniment – The evening fielded three excellent accompanists but Martineau was definitely primus inter pares. Despite a slight memory lapse in the third verse of the Wolf, Allen encompassed the ardour of “Du die Holdeste der Erden” (You the fairest on earth) and demonstrated that his voice is not lacking in power for the final lines “Fühl ich Flammen sich empören, Die den Frieden mir zerstören, Ach, der Wahnsinn faßt mich an!” (I feel flames rebelling that destroy my peace, Ah, madness seizes me!). Allen’s third item was Bridge’s setting of Keats’ The Devon Maid. Time has not been kind to Keats’ verses and what was, no doubt framed in charming innocence, now comes across as fatally close to lines from a Carry On film. Unfortunately lines such as “Tight little fairy, fresh from the dairy” have very different connotations in our smutty age! Allen wisely played up to the unintended double entendres while not quite straying into Frankie Howerd territory.
Continuing is a lighter vein Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave us Maurice Besly’s setting of Aubrey Dowdon The Second Minuet. Although the song journeys well into the land of twee Wyn-Rogers, at least partially, rescued it with a roguish sense of humour and, when required, formidable voice.
Before we could become too enmired in Edwardian parlours John Mark Ainsley and Martineau returned us to the serious world of Schubert and Goethe. Ainsley’s voice has acquired a more baritonal heft since I last heard him in the flesh but the beauty of tone and sensitivity to the subtleties of text remain. Both he and Martineau are perfectly attuned to the myriad shifts in “Auf dem See”, “An den Mond” and “Wilkommen und Abschied”. It seems almost invidious to highlight moments within such a detailed palette but the last of the three songs stood out both for Martineau’s handling of the fiendish piano part and Ainsley’s almost Florestan-level heroism in the final lines “Und doch, welch Glück, geliebt zu werden! Und lieben, Götter, welch ein Glück!” (And yet, what happiness to be loved! And to love, gods, what good fortune!)
I had been looking forward to hearing Rosemary Joshua and Sarah Connolly in “Io t’abbraccio” from Rodelinda so it was disappointing that this was one of the items cut from the final programme in deference to their joint recital on the following evening.
Sophie Bevan and Jennifer Johnston followed Schubert with Mendelssohn’s Sechs Duette. I must confess to being somewhat immune to the charms of Queen Victoria’s favourite composer. Although his composition and scoring is technically excellent I find he rarely ventures much beyond the emotional shallows. Looking at the texts and imagining what Schubert, Wolf or Strauss could have made of them it is hard not to find that Mendelssohn rarely rises above surface beauty. That said, there were many charming moments. Bevan remains delightful both vocally and in the way she lights up the stage. Johnston is new to me – Her voice is very well rounded and moments of powerful projection hinted that her future may lie with heavier repertoire possibly even Wagner. One bizarre footnote – The fifth song “Volkslied” is a setting of Rabbie Burns’ “O Wert Thou in Cauld Blast” which inevitably has to discard the Scottish argot in the German translation. Maybe Mendelssohn could have tried one of the more outré German regional dialects?!
Moving chronologically backwards to Mozart Rebecca Evans and Rosemary Joshua gave us the letter duet from Act III of Le nozze di Figaro. I’m not sure how well this excerpt works out of context but both artists brought the experience of a long run in the recent WNO production. Once again the sepulchral and unflattering platform lighting at the Wigmore severely shadowed both singers’ faces. Surely it is not beyond the capabilities of the hall to do something about this problem?
Brindley Sherratt had originally programmed Vaughan Williams’ The Wanderer as his first item but this too was a victim of last minute programme excisions. Instead he progressed immediately to Gremin’s Aria from the final act of Eugene Onegin. In the wrong hands this aria can seem a tedious set of rolling platitudes designed to show off the bass’ luxuriant low notes. However re-reading the text after a long interval proves instructive – The middle section of the aria is a bitter denunciation of the shallowness of St Petersburg high society and Sherratt gave full value to Gremin’s anger. The low climax to this section unfortunately tended towards the sharp but the depths of the final section came off well.
Sarah Connolly, entering late in the programme, clearly decided on a dramatic look. Her red dress was more than a little reminiscent of Bette Davis’ iconic frock in Jezebel. However the theatrical look proved a nice counterpoint to the subtleties of Ravel’s “La flûte enchantée” from Scheherazade. This repertoire suits Connolly’s voice and artistry like a glove. Particularly treasurable was the hushed, breathy opening phrase “L’ombre est douce et mon maitre dort” (Darkness sooths and my master sleeps)
The act closed with Allen, Evans and Connolly in “Soave sia il vento” from Cosí fan Tutte. Like many people of my generation I first encountered this piece through John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday and find it difficult to separate the gentle sadness of Mozart’s characters from the lacerating self-destructiveness of Schlesinger’s. Despite that personal caveat this was a nicely regretful account with the final repeated “Ai nostri desir” beautifully managed.
Opening the second act Rosemary Joshua and John Mark Ainsley gave us “As steals the morn” from Handel's L’Allegro. Joshua demonstrated once again that her silver tones have few rivals in this repertoire and Ainsley expertly negotiated the cruelly high lying tenor line.
Catherine Wyn-Rogers returned with Poulenc’s cycle Banalités. Set to texts by Apollinaire the songs range from the apparently trivial “Voyage a Paris” to the rage and final acceptance of “Sanglots”. However my favourite was “Hôtel” evoking the languor of an overheated summer afternoon when work is put aside as the poet yields to the temptation of a forbidden cigarette.
Kathryn Harries is an artist I usually greatly admire. However someone should have told her firstly that Carmen’s “Seguidille” really does not work out of context and, if you must do it, requires lightness and humour. Unfortunately in this rendition it felt more like Piaf rallying the troops for a particularly grim final campaign.
Gerard Collett and Sara Gonzalez-Savedra from the National Opera Studio chose to give “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Although both are clearly promising singers and Collett, particularly, has excellent dynamic control they felt interpretively at sea in this difficult song which, again, sits much more comfortably within the context of the whole cycle.
Fortunately the other representatives of the NOS were considerably more at home with their repertoire choices. Madeleine Pierard (only a few Gallic vowels betraying her excellent English) and Nicky Spence romped through “Happy we” from Acis and Galatea and Britten’s Soldier won’t you marry me? Spence even removed his shoes and other garments to illustrate the Britten. Both performers have an easy platform manner and excellent voices which bode well for their careers both in concert and on the stage.
Allen and Evans returned for more Mozart – This time “Lá ci darem” from Don Giovanni. Allen joked that they had both sung this duets hundreds of time but, so far, had managed to avoid singing it together! Although Allen makes a rather senior seducer these days and Evans’ voice is now definitely more Anna than Zerlina both artists had plenty of fun and their singing was fresh as ever.
Evans returned with three short excerpts from Bernstein’s Peter Pan. These were entirely unknown quantities to me – The music pre-dates the two musical theatre masterpieces of West Side Story and Candide. The odd thing is that none of the music sounds particularly Bernstein either in vocal or accompaniment line. In fact, in a blind tasting, I would probably have guessed a more recent composer such as the team of Ahrens/Flaherty. The music is pretty but does not stick in the mind in the way that later iconic Bernstein numbers do. Nevertheless Evans sang all three numbers beautifully and managed to avoid the potential cloying aspects of “Peter, Peter” in which Wendy makes various excuses to touch an unwilling Peter’s face and hair.
We returned to the parlour figuratively for The Singing Lesson written for the formidable Dame Clara Butt and her then husband, Kennerly Rumford. The gentle humour was applied in fairly broad brushstrokes by Wyn-Rogers as the shy would be singer and Sherratt as a delightfully crabby singing teacher. A highly enjoyable outing for a work which, while certainly no masterpiece, would be an excellent encore for duet concerts.
The evening concluded with a rousing account of the Champagne Ensemble from Die Fledermaus. Although not a particularly imaginative choice it is always hard to find an appropriate closer for this sort of event and at least they didn’t plump for the dreaded Traviata Brindisi!
One wishes the Foundation all luck for future enterprises and hope that the event yielded a good amount and raised the profile of the vital work that they undertake. A sad footnote in the programme – The concert was dedicated to Amy Black who succumbed to a heart condition last year aged only 36.