Christine Brewer & Roger Vignoles

Seven Early Songs
Gesänge des Orients, Op.77
The Poet’s Echo, Op.76 [English version by Peter Pears]
Review; Shenandoah; Waly Waly; Everyone Sang

Christine Brewer (soprano) & Roger Vignoles (piano)

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 8 March, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Scaling down a Brünnhilde-size voice for the Wigmore Hall is a challenge in itself. Christine Brewer possesses a rich, opulent sound with a lower register that a mezzo soprano would be pleased to have. It is a sound in which one could sit back and simply wallow, basking in its enfolding fullness. Its range was given full display in an amusing song by Celius Dougherty, but more of that later.

It was with the Berg pieces that the recital began, followed by the Strauss set. At the outset a marked vibrato was noticeable in Brewer’s tone, becoming less pronounced as the evening progressed. A lack of subtlety was commented on in the Strauss pieces, and perhaps a shade more variety of colour would have increased the interest, but the lushness of the music provided fertile ground for this voice, from the lyrical ‘Ihre Augen’, the first of these “Songs of the Orient”, to the last song, ‘Huldigung’, in which, to quote Gerald Larner’s programme note, “vocal ardour is not reduced even by a piano part as brilliantly irresponsible as this.”

The Berg songs are as sensual as the Strauss. It so happened that earlier in the day I had been reviewing a recording of a 1954 Italian Radio performance of Berg’s “Wozzeck” with Tito Gobbi, a more strident and jarring work that any of these Early Songs. Brewer found the note of passion, reducing her voice to suit the intimacy of the words. Roger Vignoles was in full accord, alive to the intricate harmonies in the piano part.

The second half took us from German to English, beginning with Peter Pears’s English-language version of “The Poet’s Echo” (originally set in Pushkin’s Russian). This cycle by Britten elicited more shading of the tone than had been given to the Lieder, nowhere more so than in ‘My heart’ with its tale of loss and pain. Equally appealing were the singing and playing of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, in which the flower does not respond to the bird’s advances. The final song, ‘Lines written during a sleepless night’, in which the pianist’s right-hand denotes the ticking of the clock, was given with a telling intensity by both artists.

The four Dougherty items followed the Britten. Celius Dougherty was also a pianist, making recordings with singers Povla Frÿsh and Alexander Kipnis. The song referred to above was “Review”, a musical setting of a critical description of a soprano’s debut at Carnegie Hall. It is one of a batch of unpublished songs which were given to Christine Brewer by the composer’s nephew. It calls for the performer to cover a wide range, both of actual notes and their quality, from “thin and sometimes even nasal” to “decidedly richer in texture”. Dougherty’s arrangement of “Shenandoah” was sung on a warm tone and smooth line, with Brewer caressing the slow melody. More effusive, both in content and performance, was “Everyone sang”, a setting of a Siegfried Sassoon poem celebrating the end of war.

This was an evening of rich vocalism and responsive pianism, in which there was much to relish.

  • Recital broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 20 March at 7 p.m.
  • Wigmore Hall

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