Written by: Adam Matthews
Music by Debussy, Poulenc, Britten, Jerome Kern, Noël Coward, Schumann and Schubert
Sophie Daneman (soprano)
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
Graham Johnson (piano)
St John’s, Smith Square, London
Friday, 1 December 2006
This was a Gala Concert given in honour of Ted Perry and Eleanor Warren.
Ted Perry was one of the driving forces behind the apparent resurgence of interest in ‘classical’ music that followed the introduction of Compact Disc in the early 1980s. A former label manager of Marcel Rodd’s Saga company, he had already formed Meridian with John Shuttleworth, which he left to form a business more in his own image. Bravery sometimes produces unexpected rewards, and Ted Perry was brave to launch Hyperion with a recording of music by Hildegard of Bingen. Lady-composers of the 12th-century are not usually the path to commercial success, but in this case sales were even better than the reviews and the income gave Ted the freedom to build a catalogue of more intentionally commercial repertoire. In short, Ted was a true merchant-venturer, a man who put his house and his life on the line and who drove a minicab to bridge the gaps in his cash flow.
Eleanor Warren was more of an establishment figure, who took the state’s shilling for trying to extend or even to raise the perception of a generation or two of listeners to BBC Radio 3, or to its even more intelligent predecessor, The Third Programme. Where Ted was driven by a private passion for recordings, Eleanor was a more detached figure within an organisation as free with its money as the licence-fee payer is prepared to tolerate. The idea of trading-off one programme’s costs against another’s was not the currency of that particular realm. The ‘arts’ came leather-bound, in hard-covers, pulped or as journalism. Today, there is precious little difference; instead, we have an all-embracing thing called ‘culture’, which covers everything people do in their spare time: even the stuff under their fingers nails.
Miss Warren died last year and Ted passed away in 2003. Quite why we were given this concert now and not shortly after their deaths went unexplained, but the most disappointing aspect of the event was the lack of audience. Of the seventy or eighty people who did show-up, I should guess that half of them were from the ‘classical music’ business’, which suggests that the wider audience was happier to stay at home, listening to the radio or CDs. As the concert was listed in the St John’s monthly diary and as Graham Johnson is of such standing that his presence endows singers with guaranteed quality, one ought to question the reason for such a poor turnout.
It is true that Eleanor Warren was not a household name, but Ted’s CDs continue to sell in tens of thousands across continents. Indeed, the middles-classes across the Home Counties will give and receive them as Christmas presents, just like they have for the past twenty years, but they were not in St John’s.
Ted was a substantial figure who left a substantial legacy, with deeper and longer lasting roots than any broadcaster, whose output must necessarily vanish over the ether. How many times have we read articles that have championed Ted’s contribution to the excellence of his company’s products? How many times have we seen Miss Warren’s name mentioned in connection with some insightful broadcast? I doubt that many backroom staff at the BBC was better known than she, with the exception of Robert Simpson, who was a major composer, or William Glock, of Black List fame, who was not. Oh, and John Drummond, the great impresario, who spent our money with so little personal risk or danger to his bank balance: even when Panic-ing.
So if Eleanor and Ted were so well known and still ignored at this recital, we are left with the possibility that buyers of records and listeners to broadcasts are not the same people as concert-goers: that the very people to whom our two heroes most appealed don’t give a toss for the ‘real thing’ but only for its electronically projected repetition.
I wish the audience had been greater in numbers because such a presence would unquestionably have affected the performances. There must be reason to imagine that the sight of so much light-reflecting red-plastic chair-backs colours the minds of artists whose lives have been devoted to practising their art in the hopes of worldly, as well as, artistic success. The extra bodies might also have tamed the piano a little, as the tendencies of modern instruments to sound like xylophones in the top and to roar like lions in the bass seldom helps accompany a solo singer: neither does so much unsought resonance in a virtually-empty St John’s help any chamber repertoire in it. Indeed, it reminded me of the general-purpose echo that some recording people add to produce ‘good recorded sound’. There are tales of engineers recording everything too-close and then adding a dash of resonance via a Lexicon as matter of course, leaving Mozart operas sounding as though Waterloo Station has been strung with microphones.
The other factor that affected the performances was the over-emphasis of the accompaniments. I felt as though the real interest lay with the pianist rather than the soloist. Now, I doubt any of us wants to hear apologetic accompaniments, but some of the material, particularly the Jerome Kern and Noël Coward songs (including the latter’s “A Room with a View”), called for a degree of intimacy that was not only lacking but which hampered the singer’s attempts at intimacy. Sophie Daneman, in the right conditions, is clearly capable of delivering such material with real insight, and I certainly agree with Graham Johnson’s observation that such music should never be dismissed out of hand. But I did question his determination to ‘sell’ everything, when a little less might have been in order: perhaps lowering the lid? We needed more of a sense of a small piano, being tinkled in a seedy club. It reminded me of the Beecham rehearsal, where he turned to the first fiddles and asked them impatiently whether they had ever spent the night in a first-class bordello. They repeated the phrase with added sexiness. “Ah”, he said, with a smirk, “I can see you have!”
Allan Clayton is a fine young singer, whose voice will flesh-out with his physique. As it is he sings with a strong sense of musical line but with the failing of nearly all modern English-speaking singers in not articulating consonants at the ends of words when singing English. Perhaps English is be elided into the new French? I would be thrilled not to have my head in the programme-book trying to follow the text. Even so, Clayton is well on the way to being the real thing.
Sarah Fox also suffered from the piano being too grand with her conception of mélodies by Debussy and Poulenc. No doubt, we are all trying to get away from the over-genteel approach to 20th-century French song, but, as I said, the conditions did not help Miss Fox convey the intimacy of the material, especially when she sings with such intelligence.
However, with the arrival of Jonathan Lemalu, Graham Johnson met his match because this young man has a big voice and is happy to let it rip when he felt like it and his treatment of Schumann’s Four Lieder, Opus 40, with texts from Hans Christian Andersen and, before that, Der Schatzgräber (Opus 41/Number 1) was splendid.
We had two surprise guests. Steven Isserlis popped in to deliver Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, with aplomb and Dame Felicity Lott came from the audience to sing the same composer’s “An die Musik” with great warmth and personality.
This was an evening of mixed delights, but at least, unlike so many modern recordings, they all stemmed from the humanity of a bunch of artists striving to communicate their feelings through the medium of music, without interruption, deviation or repetition.