Chamber Music No.3

Moravian Duets (selection)
On This Island
Hat gesaget – bleibt’s nicht dabei
Ich trage meine Minne
Mit deinen blauen Augen
Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Iain Burnside (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 August, 2004
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Dvořák the songwriter was celebrated in this lunchtime Chamber Prom at the V & A. A selection of his Moravian Duets, folk-based ditties here sung in a decidedly old (and twee) translation, topped and tailed the programme – not always with the most perfect balance or timbre – by sopranos and BBC New Generation Artists Sally Matthews and Ailish Tynan, accompanied by Iain Burnside.

Curiously lacking in invention (especially when compared to Janáček’s Hukvaldy Songs given at Prom 16 or the rapt folk choruses by Estonian Veijo Tormis), these Dvořák settings seemed to lack the melancholy we associate with the genre. Perhaps the pairing of two sopranos made the sound too bright, but for a rare outing they were pleasant to hear, although being sung in the original language may have helped, removing the potential for Victorian sentimentality (the English translation was unacknowledged, but sounded contemporary to the songs themselves).

Meatier were the individual contributions. Sally Matthews sang Britten’s early Auden settings. Britten was besotted with the cleverness of Auden’s poems, but they leave me cold; Britten’s music is more interesting but the lyrics sound pretentious and often vacuous, as if Auden wanted to sound clever knowing that others wouldn’t dare criticise. “As it is, plenty”, despite Britten’s cabaret-style accompaniment, fell short of the (admittedly later) brilliance of Sondheim.

Ailish Tynan fared better with her selection of Strauss songs, although the stifling Lecture Theatre acoustic didn’t respond well to her loud top notes. Along with the stillness of “Morgen” the highlight was a “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” setting, a source more recognisable from Mahler’s dependence on it. “Hat gesaget – bleibt’s nicht dabei” (He has said – but it won’t stop at that) is an utterly disarming microcosm of the plight of the teenager (not that teenagers were recognised as such in the 19th-century). In the first verse the singer is bribed by the father into doing a chore with the promise of three eggs; but, she complains, father will have two eggs and leave one, which isn’t worth it. Then mother wants her to do something with the promise of three cooked birds. But mother will take two of the birds and it’s not worth doing just for one. However, when her sweetheart offers three kisses, well, that’s a completely different proposition!

In a sense, that song showed up the Dvořák duets, four more of which brought back Matthews and Tynan. Perhaps subconsciously matching the choice of their individual contributions, both were in black and white, Matthews more strident in black top and white skirt bordered with black, with a black and white tie around her waist, while Tynan sported a flightier dress, with white etched flowers on black.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 7 August at midday
  • BBC Proms 2004

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