Graham Johnson Songmakers’ Almanac at Wigmore Hall

“John Gilhooly asked Graham Johnson for a new Songmakers’ Almanac series, and this first concert lives up to its name as a source of information pertaining to anniversaries and special days of the year – inspired by Robert Chambers’ famous The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literatureand Oddities of Human Life and Character of 1863.” [Wigmore Hall website]

Ailish Tynan (soprano), Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Appl (baritone), William Thomas (bass) & Graham Johnson (piano) with Shalisha James-Davis (actor)

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 24 January, 2019
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Graham JohnsonPhotograph: Clive BardaAnother enterprising and eclectic mix of songs and readings from Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac, this time in celebration of a myriad of musical anniversaries relating to January. With Johnson at the piano, but also reading in partnership with the velvety-toned and appealing Shalisha James-Davis, and with four distinct voices essaying many different styles and languages, this was an evening of delights and contrasts.

Anna Huntley’s lush mezzo-soprano sounded particularly ravishing in Wigmore Hall’s acoustic. She has a great sense of line and phrase allied to stage presence. Her performance of Dominick Argento’s varied, part-declamatory setting of an extract from The Diary of Virginia Woolf (born 25 January 1882) that describes the poet’s musings whilst attending the funeral of Thomas Hardy had just the right sense of the spontaneous and improvisatory about it; it was beautifully accompanied by Johnson. Near the start of the programme in celebration of the birth of Michael Tippett (2 January 1905) she offered the first of the composer’s Songs for Ariel – ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ – leaving one wishing she’d sung the lot. Add distinct Mélisande-like overtones to her responses in Debussy’s lovers’ dialogue and light humour as Romeo in Stephen Foster’s Wilt though be gone, love? she certainly showed versatility. In this latter piece she was partnered by chameleon-like Ailish Tynan’s ditsy yet assertive Juliet, always able to scale down the potential power of her voice to reveal many lighter and delectable colours. She ravished the senses in Delibes’s Myrto (Delibes died 16 January 1891) and was suitably artless in Wolf’s Ganymede (song composed 11 January 1889). She also revealed a strong comedic and choreographic element as the mother when William Thomas sang Ivor Novello’s And her mother came too (Novello born on 15 January 1893).

Thomas is a young bass with a big resonant instrument and on this showing is surely destined for a distinguished operatic career. The voice isn’t perfectly settled, and he seemed more relaxed and communicative when singing in English rather than French or German. He was terrific in Gounod’s Maid of Athens (celebrating Byron’s birth on 22 January 1788) – his phrasing secure and seductive and demonstrating control of quieter dynamics. Completing the quartet was Benjamin Appl whose fresh honeyed tenor always sounds well in this venue. He impressed particularly in Mozart’s ‘Abendempfindung’ and in Duparc’s Phidylé (both songs commemorating the January births). He dovetailed nicely with the ladies in Wolf’s Epiphanias – getting the wit of the German text over with point.

As ever Johnson was a supreme partner to the singers, yet always relishing his moments in the gentle spotlight, for example the rhythmically infectious writing of Chabrier’s L’île heureuse (birth of composer 18 January 1841). More dates please!

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