Many of the songs in this afternoon recital were included on The Prince Consort’s much-lauded release entitled “On the Echoing Road”. New to the group’s repertoire is Ned Rorem’s setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 (“Two loves have I of comfort and despair”), which treats the predicament of a Mankind torn between the divided promptings of Virtue and Vice, and – more particularly – the poet’s pain at being torn between his mistress and his male lover. The complex strands of the relationship find their counterpart in the division of the text between the soprano and mezzo voices, sometimes alternating and sometimes combining to reflect the poet’s tangled thoughts. Anna Leese and Jennifer Johnston, highly expressive singers both, shaded their voices perfectly to reveal the depth of the poet’s conflict, as well as his suspicions regarding the likely outcome (“Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt / Till my bad angel fire my good one out”). This is a fine addition to Rorem’s huge output of songs.
Jacques Imbrailo was appropriately debonair in “Early in the morning” (Hillyer) and mellifluously pining in “Jeanie with the light brown hair” (Foster). Anna Leese and Jennifer Johnston joined Imbrailo for ‘Requiescat’ (from the cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen”), a touching setting of Oscar Wilde’s elegy on the death of his 10-year-old younger sister Isola – again beautifully sung. And in the Britten-influenced ‘On an Echoing road’ (from the same cycle), the two ladies blended their voices to perfection. Johnston used her expressive mezzo movingly in “Look down fair moon”, vividly conjuring up Walt Whitman’s scene of dead soldiers on the battlefield; and in “Orchid” (Roethke) she richly caught the poem’s balmy mood, eerily emphasised by Alisdair Hogarth on the piano.
Tim Mead is a stylish countertenor with an unusually wide range of hues. To take just two of his fine contributions, his reading of Whitman’s “Sometimes with the one I love” sensitively conveyed the poet’s message that art can harness the pains of love to artistic purpose; and in the admonitory “O do not love too long” (Yeats) Rorem’s beautiful word-setting benefitted hugely from Mead’s legato delivery. Andrew Staples sang “The Serpent” (Roethke) with great élan and sense of humour, while in “Catullus: On the Burial of his brother” the beauty of his tenor was as striking as the sadness he imparted to this tender adieu. He closed the recital with another elegy, “On a singing girl”, a perfect choice since it is Rorem at his most expressive, especially in this ‘felt’ performance.
This recital offered a feast of excellent singing, which made one eager to explore further Ned Rorem's song settings.