In sweet music is such art

Vaughan Williams
Three Poems by Walt Whitman [Nocturne; A clear midnight; Joy, shipmate, joy!]
The little boy lost; O my deir hert; O garlands, hanging by the door; Girl’s song; Lost love; Blaweary
Vaughan Williams
Two Pieces for Violin and Piano [Romance; Pastorale]
Along the Field
Four Last Songs
Before and After Summer Op.16 [Selection: Childhood among the ferns; Before and after summer; Overlooking the river; Channel firing; The too short time; Amabel; He abjures love]
Four French Chansons, Op.29
Vaughan Williams
Two English Folksongs arranged for Voice and Violin [Searching for lambs; The lawyer]
Two Vocal Duets for Soprano, Baritone, Piano and Violin Obbligato [The last invocation; The love song of the birds]

Joan Rodgers (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Jack Liebeck (violin) & Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 11 September, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Julius Drake. Photograph: This was an imaginatively planned (by Julius Drake), scrupulously prepared and generously composed recital. A full two hours of actual music, with regularly revolving combinations of musicians and representing the varied work of three English composers, should have satisfied the appetite of the most avid enthusiast for English song, with the only real reservation being the lack of humour.

The suspicion that Ralph Vaughan Williams was uncomfortable with the piano, causing him to choose other instruments to accompany the voice in some of his song-cycles, was tested by the choice of repertoire in the first half of this recital. The opening set of piano-accompanied Walt Whitman settings offered two intense, cheerless songs focusing on death, with the emphasis strongly on the voice, supported by a generally dour accompaniment. Christopher Maltman immediately found the right tone, drawing us into the solemnity of the opening two songs. With his precise enunciation of the text, a feature striking throughout the evening, he conveyed the relentless onset of night and a sense of resignation, intent apparently on not disturbing the peace of the “soul passing over” referred to in the last stanza of ‘Nocturne’. If the singing was subdued in these songs, the same theme was projected with energy but without overstatement in the sea-shanty format of ‘Joy, shipmate, joy!’.

Jack LiebeckViolinist Jack Liebeck warmed up for his accompanying role in “Along the Field” with two pre-World War One pieces for violin and piano. The rhapsodic nature of ‘Romance’ contrasted with the more thematic ‘Pastorale’, in which there was an imitative dialogue between violin and piano. In the song-cycle the violin line made an eloquent contribution to the predominantly morbid tone: the double-stopped drone in ‘Along the field’ itself and the sustained cantabile of the final song “With rue my heart is laden”. The instrument’s powers of expression were also called on in the infectious dance rhythm of ‘Fancy’s knell’ and the wit of ‘Good-bye’.

Drake resumed his partnership with the baritone in Vaughan Williams’s “Four Last Songs”, which represented Maltman at his best. The voice is wholly pliable, able to contain changes of dynamic, register and colour within an uninterrupted line. The control of what is a sizeable voice was illustrated in the restrained context of ‘Tired’, then matched in the pointed variations of ‘Menelaus’, with its progress from pianissimo to fortissimo as the singer clamours “Stretch out your hand” before returning through expert use of diminuendo in head voice to the final vision of the reception of the returned hero, delivered with just the right colour – and all utterly spontaneous. One was not troubled by the assignment to a baritone of songs intended for a mezzo-soprano.

Joan Rodgers. Photograph: Anne Marie Le BleJoan Rodgers’s first group of Herbert Howells songs comprised published and unpublished items. Two lullabies, “O my deir hert” and “Blaweary” were themselves contrasted, the former devout, the latter folksy, a quality shared with the other setting of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, “Girl’s Song”; the composer intended to write a six-strong set of lyrics by this poet. Experimentation with diverse musical styles was also demonstrated in the respectively modal and pentatonic manner of “The little boy lost” and “Lost love”. Rodgers moved with confident musicianship across the frontiers.

The role of the accompaniment in these songs was generally muted. Only occasionally did Drake have the opportunity to join with his partner in sharing the expression. He ended “Girl’s song” with a rhetorical flourish and opened out in warmth when in “Lost love” the composer has allowed harmony to gush forth in an otherwise austere context to describe the origins of love and the girl’s hopes for its renewal.

Christopher MaltmanOtherwise it was the singer, sometimes unaccompanied, who carried the burden of interpreting the poetry. Rodgers left no doubt of her heartfelt identification with each of these intensely subjective songs but she had a tendency to over-emphasise particular words, sometimes also underlining them with obtrusive gestures. Her line had bulges where Maltman’s was smooth, her interpretation seemed calculated where his was natural. Where adjustments of tone-colour were left to register unaided her interpretation was at its most effective, most notably in the closing lines of the unpublished “O garlands hanging by the door”, a manuscript copy of which is in the Royal College of Music archive and was dedicated to the tenor Gervase Elwes.

Rodgers returned in the second half for Howells’s “Four French Chansons”, written just at the end of the First World War. These are settings of folk-tales, composed with a wider range of musical artifice than might be evident at first sight. In the opening song about the pious princess and the pagan king Rodgers favoured her soubrettish high register, while in the third, impersonating an under-age novitiate applying for entry to a convent, the simple repetitive vocal pattern did not prevent her from characterising the participants in the narrative or applying warm lyricism to some of the utterances. She was equally adept in Howells’s witty setting about a tailor rejected as a suitor despite his belief in the value of a steady occupation.

The seven songs from Finzi’s “Before and After Summer” contained the most equal partnership between singer (Maltman) and pianist. Finzi’s strict preference for syllabic word-setting reduces the singer’s options for detailed word-painting, well as Maltman worked to illuminate Thomas Hardy’s obscure verse. ‘Channel firing’ is the most celebrated song in this collection and the changing episodes of its narrative were clearly evident in this performance but the other songs were not overshadowed. Drake brought out the independent character of his instrument’s part in ‘Childhood among the ferns’ and vividly portrayed the transition from agitation to depression in the title song. His setting of atmosphere at the start of songs was vital: the portrayal of falling leaves in ‘The too short time’ and the racing accompaniment of the opening of ‘He abjures love’ made the contrast with the demoralised ending of both those songs.

Two tailpieces extended the concert, rather unnecessarily, though the duets, in a late-Romantic idiom, were receiving their first performance in modern times. One not insignificant complaint: the programme-content-page as advertised on the Wigmore Hall website until at least lunchtime on the day of the recital promised us “Songs from Peacock Pie” by Howells and the cycle “Earth and Air and Rain” as the Finzi offering; it also made no mention of the violin solos or the Vaughan Williams folksong arrangements or duets. Reviewers do their homework and find it frustrating to discover that they have been revising for the wrong syllabus!

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