An Italian Songbook at Milton Court

Italienisches Liederbuch – A new, staged English version, entitled An Italian Songbook, created by Jeremy Sams & Christopher Glynn, translated by Sams

Rowan Pierce (soprano), Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), James Newby & Roderick Williams (baritones) and Christopher Glynn (piano)

Jeremy Sams & Louise Shephard – Directors

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 19 February, 2019
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

An Italian Songbook at Milton CourtPhotograph: Mark Allan / Barbican CentrePlayed through without interval this was a moving and entertaining (laugh-out-loud) presentation of the forty-six songs of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch in new, free and definitely whimsical translations by Jeremy Sams. The mercurial aspect of the German-language originals remains strongly to the fore, as do thematic aspects. In this “dramatic” realisation the sequence of songs encapsulated a loose narrative of the friendships of two men and two women with their romantic and at times bitter inter-relationships. Add a Don Alfonso-type player into the mix in the form of Roderick Williams, alternately egging the couples on or emotionally teasing or manipulating them and you get a general idea of the concept.

All the singers displayed great skill in inflecting the texts with humour or point, whilst also showing their abilities to alter colours, dynamics and phrasing as mood demanded. Adding to the sense of cohesion was the superb playing of Christopher Glynn, who only entered the ‘theatrical’ frame towards the very end of the cycle, most memorably in “It’s time to end the war that we’ve been waging” (XLII) with its nautical / aquatic references to Phoenicians and Venetians depicted with gentle waves and tides.

An Italian Songbook at Milton CourtPhotograph: Mark Allan / Barbican CentreWe were in rich vocal company. Williams spun out his long lines with superbly controlled legato and yet with every word crystal-clear. He’s such an adept communicator; some of his later songs proved to be the emotional core of the evening. Rowan Pierce’s soprano has brilliance at the top and an impressively velvety tone in its lower reaches. Plaintive-sounding when needed, and not lacking in dramatic forcefulness either, she also manages deadpan humour well – not least when assessing the latest romantic fixation of Katie Bray. Bray herself has a powerful instrument with a lot of character to it, intensely dramatic but also very sensual, and she brought astonishing emotional depth and directness to her numbers. She was hilarious delivering Sams’s texts for XII, “My lover is so small”, with all its references to insects, bugs and other pests.

Nicky Spence’s contributions were notable for their quicksilver changes of temperament and for his ability to vary his tone from the burnished and heroic to delicately soft. Completing the quartet was James Newby, likeable from a dramatic perspective when playing a young idealistic lover and displaying a skilful control of dynamic when bringing his voice down to pianissimo.

All the singers came together for an encore, a reprise of XIII, originally sung by Williams, “The smallest things can bring the greatest pleasure”. I’ll go with that as a summary of the evening!

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