Erica Eloff & James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall: Youth and Love

Pieter de Villiers
Seven Boerneef Songs
Debussy
Quatre chansons de jeunesse
Poulenc
La courte paille
Hannes Taljaard
Four Venda Songs [UK premiere]
Schumann
Widmung, Op.25/1; Der Nussbaum, Op.25/3; Lied der Suleika, Op.25/9; Frage, Op.35/9; Stille Tränen, Op.35/10; Mein schöner Stern, Op.101/4
Wim Henderickx
Zoon van Eros: 3 songs on poems by Hans Andreus [UK premiere]
Strauss
Mädchenblumen, Op.22 [Kornblumen, Op.22/1; Mohnblumen, Op.22/2; Epheu, Op.22/3; Wasserrose, Op.22/4]; Fur fünfzehn Pfennige, Op.36/2; Hat gesagt, bleibt’s nicht dabei, Op.36/3

Erica Eloff (soprano) & James Baillieu (piano)


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 2 January, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Erica EloffSince 1963, the Kirckman Concert Society has been promoting young artists of exceptional talent and providing them with a London platform since 1963. The list of musicians thus supported is star-studded. The attendance at this latest event was rather sparse but it would be no surprise if the names of Erica Eloff and James Baillieu were to be added to the roll of honour in years to come.

This was Eloff’s second recital at Wigmore Hall under these auspices and she had also appeared in this venue in the last two Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competitions, without reaching the final round. Perhaps she didn’t do herself justice then but she came here on this occasion as winner of the 2008 Handel Singing Competition, while her partner had won the Accompanist’s Prize at the 2009 Kohn Song Competition. Both artists did more than assert their potential; they displayed established technical ability and assurance before an audience, if in the soprano’s case not being evenly successful across a range of styles.

The programme was intended to reflect on childhood innocence and aspects of love. Love of their native South Africa and its music glowed through two groups of songs in the first half. The seven settings of Afrikaans texts in the style of children’s rhymes was an ideal recital opener, giving Eloff the chance to enact different characters without overdoing things. A lyrical love-song with flowing accompaniment, ‘The mountain goose dropped a feather’, allowed her to hint at intensity of feeling while keeping the volume under restraint. In the nostalgic ‘Evening primrose is a white flower’ the final lines soared, then died, while her hushed pianissimo rounded off the final song ‘At the top of the hill’, with its concluding reference to old age. These were balanced by some more playful, charmingly uninhibited children’s songs.

The varied ethnicities of the rainbow nation were also represented by the arrangements of four Venda songs, for which the artists donned traditional dress. Two sentimental religious songs were matched by the harsh realities of life, with children forced to work (the laborious monotony of daily chores well caught here) and poultry and cattle threatened by a range of fearsome predators (exultantly seen off by rifle-fire). Here Baillieu vividly imitated the sounds of tribal percussion instruments.

By the time she reached the three love poems of Wim Henderickx, a Flemish composer with African connections, to open the second half, Eloff had allowed her voice to expand into its full capacity. The top of the voice was used in references to the sun but given contrasting treatment: in ‘The heart of the night’ exquisite soft singing, and in ‘I love you more’ passionate, uninhibited fortissimo. The accompaniments here were often detached from the voice part, the percussive scales and octaves sometimes conflicting with the message of the text. This made Eloff’s confident accuracy of line, a feature of her singing throughout, even more impressive.

James Baillieu. Photograph: Oxford LiederHer first venture into European Art-Song was the collection of four early Debussy melodies written for the coloratura-soprano Marie Vasnier. The control applied to the “Boerneef Songs” had not prepared us for the machine-gun fire with which she let fly at the high notes of ‘Apparition’ (not without a hint of shrillness), the precise staccatos of ‘Pantomime’, nor the athleticism of ‘Pierrot’. At the same time the good judgement (and the technique) were there to cover the voice in the extreme top register, as was the intelligence to execute a carefully considered pattern of dynamic contrasts. The partnership with Baillieu in this respect demanded as much respect as his traversal of the varied piano-writing across these quite disparate songs

Juvenilia from Debussy were juxtaposed with Poulenc’s last song-cycle. That the composer should choose to desert the asperity of style which he had so conspicuously owned almost throughout his career in favour of one intelligible to a six-year-old is puzzling, though I suspect that his more characteristic work would not suit Eloff at her current stage of development. As it was, she seemed most at home in the opening lullaby, the hushed mystery of ‘La reine de coeurs’ and the soaring phrases and subsiding into nothing of ‘Les anges musiciens’. She fired blanks in the brisker numbers, largely due to a weakness which compromised both French sets: cloudy articulation of the language.

In Lieder Eloff had much to offer. She made a case for Richard Strauss’s rarely-heard ‘Mädchenblumen’, with its musical analogies between garden plants and female types. In German the snappy rhythms associated with the fiery poppies gave no problem and she did not miss the opportunities to colour her tone at words such as “weinen” and “necken”. ‘Wasserrose’ came across as a minor masterpiece, its personification of the delicate, diaphanous water-lily as a bewitching, inscrutable woman sustained throughout in long, lyric lines. Baillieu was faultless in this song; his part is never marked above pp throughout. From the tempo change to 12/8 and the introduction of the Forest Murmurs-like oscillations the song took off into an ethereal world. He excelled also in the two “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” settings in which Eloff missed some points.

The climax of the recital came in the Schumann group. Both artists penetrated to the core of these songs. The “Myrthen” selections had clearly been intensively studied. The result was much persuasive detail: subtle variations of tempo in ‘Widmung’ underlined the poet’s devotion; ‘Lied der Suleika’ had the sense of constant discovery; the singer hesitated just momentarily in ‘Der Nussbaum’ at the words “Und Tage lang wusste, ach! Selber nicht was”. The Kerner setting ‘Stille Tränen’ received another inventive interpretation, with strong contrasts between ringing phrases and controlled diminuendos. One felt in Baillieu’s playing of the interlude before the repetition of the final lines and in the postlude itself the heartfelt reluctance of the poet to leave behind the haunting idea he has just articulated.

There was one encore, “Heimwee” (S. le Roux Marais), the familiar song of longing for the South African homeland. South Africa may have produced a soprano to succeed Mimi Coertse, even if Eloff currently lacks that great singer’s sweetness of tone. In the case of her James Baillieu, I am confident that he will soon be working with the world’s leading singers in the recital room.

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