Orpheus with his lute
On Wenlock Edge; Most Holy Night; By a Bierside
Ludlow and Teme
One foot in Eden [London premiere]
On Wenlock Edge
Allan Clayton (tenor) & Julius Drake (piano)
Navarra String Quartet [Xander Van Vliet & Marije Ploemacher (violins), Simone van der Giessen (viola) & Nathaniel Boyd (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 2 December, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Allan Clayton signalled a significant advance in his burgeoning career and his vocal development in this recital. He is a product of the English choral tradition (Worcester Cathedral, St John’s College Cambridge) but is clearly progressing towards a major operatic career (he was a postgraduate student on the opera course at the Royal Academy of Music). The top notes are produced with a freedom which often eludes British tenors of a cathedral background. There is no muscularity about the tone but forte passages are able to tell as the tone expands into a powerful, ringing but still agreeable sound.
Even in this recital of British art-song there was every sign that the voice is in the process of expanding and that it may become a strong lyric tenor. I note that he has already sung the roles of Peter Grimes and Gerontius: the latter has to declaim with intensity both on his deathbed and in the presence of God and has been the preserve of strong lyric and even lirico-spinto singers.
In this Wigmore Hall recital, the opening group comprised two early, non-progressive songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams with three by Ivor Gurney written prior to his commitment to an asylum. Clayton showed himself to be already the master of vocal accomplishments and technical challenges.
In “Orpheus with his lute” there was evidence of the breadth of his phrasing and his comfort in negotiating the passaggio and his ability to mix the tone. “Linden Lea” began tentatively, possibly because latecomers were still reaching their seats; he could be accused of making rather too obvious contrasts in the treatment of each of the three verses but at least he did not seek to be different at all costs in this familiar piece.
The three Gurney pieces were a deal less straightforward. “By a Bierside” in particular was a thing of interpretative extremes. The swift crescendo of tribute at “Beauty was in this brain and in this eager hand”, succeeded by an impassioned protest against death’s arbitrariness, then the pianissimo head-voice and melisma of “Death drives the lovely soul to wander under the sky”, ending with the prolonged fortissimo declaration of “It is most grand to die”, all undertaken in complete absorption in Masefield’s poetic world.
The partnership with Julius Drake (who has devised this series) was firmly cemented in this group of purely piano-accompanied songs. In the turbulence of “On Wenlock Edge” Drake maintained the clarity and precision of the piano figures in both hands, co-ordinating with his partner both the crescendo that proclaims national pride (“The blood that warms an English yeoman”) and the piano of the final line “Are ashes under Uricon”. This peaceful ambience was maintained in a finely-balanced ‘Most Holy Night’ (Hilaire Belloc) with the accompaniment padding along quietly until galvanised by the singer’s acquisition of urgency in the final stanza. The subito piano on a high note at “And cheat me” was further evidence of advanced technical ability.
For the remainder of the recital singer and pianist were augmented by the Navarra Quartet. Gurney’s credentials as a musical setter of Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” were put on the table before the interval. His seven songs are an assortment rather than a cycle. The Heimweh of ‘Far in a western brookland’ in the singer’s musing over a cushion of plush string chords, the dance rhythms of ‘Tis time, I think’ and the homespun wisdom of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ reflected in its folk-like melody against jumpy figures from the quartet were well differentiated.
The criticism that Gurney provides “clumsy or plain dull piano accompaniments”, quoted in Trevor Hold’s invaluable book about English song composers, Parry to Finzi, was not disproved. Drake was gainfully employed in ‘Far in a western brookland’ but elsewhere rather a background figure with four other instrumental voices to provide the word-painting in which Gurney undoubtedly excels. The feeling of “aimless meandering” of which Gurney has also been accused was gainsaid by the vigorous playing in ‘Ludlow Fair’, in which the portrayal of vivacious youth is given full value yet also contrasted with sentiments of death.
Clayton showed impressive sensitivity to the varied emotional map of the poems, especially in projecting the climaxes of both ‘Ludlow Fair’ and ‘On the idle hill of summer’, with their morbid message of the certainty of death coupled with defiance. The latter shared with ‘Far in a western brookland’ a satisfying subsidence into repose; these emerged as two of the composer’s most finished songs. This required and received accomplished breath control and secure high notes from a singer well in touch with both poetic and musical expression. This he consolidated further in the concluding song ‘The Lent Lily’, which combines life and death through the imagery of enduring versus short-lived spring flowers. Clayton’s tender soft singing was replaced in the final phrases with a blaze of sunlight to complete the sequence of songs.
In the contest between Gurney and Vaughan Williams the older man was a clear winner. His “On Wenlock Edge” is more organically constructed, with three substantial songs punctuated by two brief settings, the whole rounded off by the easy-going and wistful ‘Clun’. The artists made this structure clear while maintaining the work’s overall unity. The respectively tranquil and frivolous songs about short-lived relationships were the whipped cream between the macabre ‘Is my team ploughing’ and the doleful ‘Bredon Hill’, which were both loaded with powerful weight. The growing anxiety of the returning ghost in the former was graphically conveyed, while at one point the accompaniment of the survivor’s response threatened to overwhelm the voice. Clayton not only demonstrated his possession of the wide range of vocal resource, which the song requires, he also showed himself a vivid story-teller in both songs, rising to heights of virtual hysteria in the climax of ‘Bredon Hill’. This was ideally neutralised in ‘Clun’, with its release from tension.
The first performance in London of David Matthews’s three-song-cycle “One foot in Eden” was clearly well rehearsed. The texts by Edwin Muir are chosen to represent progressive stages in the poet’s writing. Clayton’s well-supported soft singing, especially in the third song from the very end of Muir’s active life, ‘Sunset’, was prominent here, especially in the haunting ending, to which he devoted his full emotional commitment. At times I felt the work was a mélange of different, disconnected musical forms. ‘One foot in Eden’, a conventional voice and piano piece, was balanced by the piano’s silence in ‘Sunset’.
Instrumental interludes, including a passacaglia of growing intensity between the second and third songs, plus the inclusion of a scherzo and slow march in ‘Autumn in Prague’, I found more successful than much of the vocal writing. The eager musicians of the Navarra Quartet certainly did them justice.
Clayton is now a member of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme and I shall be astonished if he does not take high rank among his generation of international tenors.