Zwölf Gedichte, Op.35 (Kerner)
The House of Life – II: Silent Noon
The Three Ravens
Folk Songs Vol.1 The British Isles – VII: Oliver Cromwell
James Newby (baritone) & Simon Lepper (piano)
Reviewed by: Amanda-Jane Doran
Reviewed: 18 November, 2019
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
BBC New Generation Artist James Newby has been collecting awards and accolades for several years now in spite of his youth. His lunchtime recital with pianist Simon Lepper was awaited with hushed anticipation at London’s shrine to song, Wigmore Hall. Songs of Schumann were paired with twentieth century folk-inspired British songs, for a programme exploring the joys and anguish of love and the beauties of the natural world.
The twelve songs of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder contain significant technical and expressive demands for the singer, and this may explain the relative rarity of the performance of this set of Lieder from Schumann’s Liederjahr of 1840. It is not an organic song cycle, as the Dichterliebe and Liederkreis op.39 so obviously are, but a Liederreihe – literally a row of songs. Strong themes unite the group of poems and the opening ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’ (Joy in a stormy night) was delivered with dramatic resonance by Newby, whose powerful and lyrical baritone was perfectly suited to the nuanced description of passionate love mirrored in a violent storm while safely sheltered indoors.
Newby’s narrative gift was emphasised in the second song ‘Stirb’, Lieb’ und Freud’ ‘(Die, love and joy). Here Newby’s range from baritone to tenor head voice and falsetto contributed colour and character as the scene inside a gothic cathedral unfurled A beautiful young girl is observed silently by her lover as she commits her life to God and shatters his heart. Newby’s brave countertenor “vow” was spellbinding. Vigorous songs of travel followed, melancholy hymns to the healing power of nature which Newby shaped with ease in terms of music and poetry. This is repertoire he was born to sing. The maturity of his interpretaiton of ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’ (To the wine glass of a departed friend) combined a bright celebration of carousing and metaphysical speculations on mortality, the latter with a veiled half voice. Secret and repressed love come to the fore towards the end of the sequence, ‘Stille Tränen’ (Silent tears) was given with an almost operatic level of intensity: the bitter sweetness of Schumann’s vocal line and piano accompaniment was captured exquisitely by Newby and Lepper. The audience responded fortissimo.
The traditional folk framework of the group of British songs contrasted well with the lush emotions of the Schumann set, and there were many themes which interwove between the two parts of the recital. The timeless drama and eroticism of Vaughan Williams’s ‘Silent Noon’ was conveyed with an heroic intimacy, and the dark and healing power of nature in Ireland’s The Three Ravens was vividly drawn. Newby’s dramatic gifts are considerable, and Howells’s ‘King David’ again showcased his talent for individual interpretation and imaginative use of dynamics. Humour was not lacking. Britten’s ‘Oliver Cromwell’ concluded in sparky style and Newby’s enticing ‘Foggy, foggy dew’ – another Britten arrangement – made a hugely appreciated encore.
Newby is only in his mid-twenties and already exhibits natural talent and thoughtful musicality in the Lieder repertoire: a young singer of much promise.