04 Apr 2011

Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall

In this intriguing and unpredictable recital, American countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo, and his accompanist, Simon Lepper, presented a dynamic sequence of American song from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Both performers may be alumni of King’s College Cambridge, but there was little of the English cathedral tradition in either the selected repertoire or the performance itself. Indeed, in a recent interview, Zazzo declared his intention to “push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do” not just in terms of “different repertoire or singing higher, but showing that you can give a rounded performance that's acceptable on all different levels”.

Zazzo has received immense praise for his recent operatic portrayals — in Xerxes and Radamisto at ENO and in Thomas Ad├Ęs’ The Tempest at Covent Garden, where he created the role of Trinculo — and there was certainly an air of excitement as the performers bounded onto the stage and launched precipitously into the Charles Ives’ ‘Memories’, commencing even before the welcoming applause had ceased.

Divided into two parts, ‘A) Very pleasant’ and ‘B) Rather sad’, ‘Memories’ is one of Ives’ most famous comic songs. Bursting with energy, Zazzo captured the breathless excitement of the young protagonist who eagerly awaits the rise of the curtain at the opera house. The song is a witty parody of G&S patter, and Zazzo enjoyed the flamboyant exaggerations of the song. However, here and in the quieter, more melancholy ‘Rather sad’, the qualities which were to mar what was at times an impressive and striking performance were immediately present. For Zazzo’s countertenor is a rather cold, hard instrument — suitable perhaps for Ives’ sharp satire, but less appealing at more reflective moments. Moreover, the text was almost unintelligible, here and throughout the recital, as Zazzo continually elongated the vowels and swallowed or ignored the consonants; this created the impression of a lack of emotional involvement with the text, as verbal nuances were not distinguishable, an effect exacerbated by a rather inflexible approach to the delivery and shaping of the melodic phrase.

The performers certainly shared an innate feeling for Ives’ varied idioms. ‘Songs my mother taught me’ possessed a controlled simplicity; in ‘Walking’ Lepper vigorously conjured up the sounds and rhythms of everyday urban life, church bells, a jazz dance, surging traffic. Most successful of these opening songs was ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’: here the strumming piano chords conveyed the many colours and translucency of the ‘cloudy willow and the plumy elm’ beside the ‘dreamy realm’ of the ‘contented river’. As the Housatonic River meandered its way through the landscape, the power and penetration of Zazzo’s focused tone was apparent, although a tendency to crescendo rather too forcefully through particular syllables at times revealed a slight graininess.

Samuel Barber’s ten Hermit Songs of 1952 are scarcely, if ever, performed by a countertenor. The texts, as Barber explained are “settings of anonymous, Irish texts of the eighth to thirteenth centuries written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of manuscripts they were copying or illuminating — perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors”. And, the songs are principally declamatory in nature; indeed, the composer eschews time signatures in order to allow the singer to declaim the rhythmic irregularities of the poetry. The archaisms of the texts are underlined by sparse textures and frequent bare fourths and fifths in the accompaniment — as in ‘The Crucifixion’, where the driving intensity of the painful image of suffering, ‘Ah sore was the suffering borne/ By the body of Mary’s Son’, is counterbalanced by a quiet piano postlude whose high register and bare fifths evoke the poignancy of the grief, ‘Which for His sake/ Came upon His Mother’.

Zazzo’s intonation was well-centred throughout these songs, and at times he responded very effectively to textual details — delivering a whirling glissando to convey the sound of the bell struck ‘on a windy night’ in ‘Church bell at night’, and emphasising the dynamic melismas in ‘Sea-snatch’ to imitate the apocalyptic wind which as ‘consumed us, swallowed us’, culminating in a piercing cry to ‘O King of the starbright Kingdom of Heaven’. In the enigmatic, ephemeral ‘Promiscuity’, he revealed a more subtle and varied palette; while at the climax of ‘St. Ita’s vision’ Zazzo’s astonishing range, and his ability to control his voice across the registers, was unveiled. Throughout these songs, Lepper exploited contrasts of register and brought vitality to the rhythmic irregularities. Zazzo, a natural stage performer relished the dramatic quality of the songs, readily adopting different personae, and bringing the characters and lives from the medieval past into the present, revealing the on-going relevance of the texts’ sentiments in the modern world.

The second half of the recital began with Ned Rorem’s War Scenes of 1969, settings of Walt Whitman’s diary of the Civil War, ‘Specimen Days’. In these recitative-like declamations Zazzo’s imprecise diction was a more serious problem, although some songs were more successful in this regard than others. In ‘Specimen Case’, steady piano chords punctuated a clearer account of the war-shock suffered by a ‘poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse shining hair’, and here Zazzo established a mood of pathos and regret. Similarly, the unaccompanied opening of ‘The real war will never get in books’ (which Rorem gives the unusual marking, ‘flexible, declamatory, slower than speech, but rich and full, supple and grand’) was deeply moving. Humming through closed mouth for the final phrase, allowing his voice to dissolve as we pondered on ‘how much, and of importance, has already been, buried in the grave’, Zazzo showed that he is not afraid to take risks and experiment with colour — here to touching effect. And, in ‘A night battle’ the shout, ‘Charge men charge?...’ was extravagantly delivered. Rorem’s accompaniments do much to convey the drama of the prose, and at the start of this song Lepper sensitively interweaved the right hand line with the voice, while an ethereal concluding flourish evoked the silvery radiance of the moon at dusk. The grotesque fury of the postlude to the jazz inflected ‘Inauguration ball’ was startling.

Zazzo concluded this all-American programme which a new song-cycle by Andrew Gerle, ‘Drink Well and Sing’, based on poems by, and inspired by, Anacreon of Teos. It concerns a poet at the end of his life, as he reflects on his lost youth and consoles himself with thoughts of wine, women and song. Gerle is best known, and highly acclaimed, for his music theatre work — the composer of six highly praised musicals, he is a recipient of the Jonathan Larson Award, three Richard Rodgers Awards, and was the first composer selected to receive the Burton Lane Composer's Fellowship from the Theatre Hall of Fame. And, there were plenty of Broadway touches here, not least in the boisterous ‘Bring me the winebowl, in which Zazzo enjoyed the extravagant rhetoricism, relishing the strident semitonal dissonances between piano and voice. Affective ‘blue notes’ coloured ‘Once again’, a lament for lost love and passing years: ‘And she tells me that my hair is white,/ And say oh!/ She loves another’. As in the Rorem songs, the piano does much to relay the narrative. In ‘You’ve snipped the perfect blossoms off’, Lepper expertly controlled the momentum, manipulating colour, dynamics and rhythm, interweaving sensitively with the vocal melody. The staccato stabbings of prancing horses, added much wry irony to the miniature, ‘The Mysians’: ‘The Mysians first mated/ Horse-mounting asses with mares/ Inventing the half-assed mule.’ The gentle lilting accompaniment of ‘Before I depart’ brought the cycle to a restful close, as the poet-speaker longs to ‘make a bed of soft myrtles and lotus plants,/ And drink to my friends’.

This was an intriguing and entertaining evening of song; Zazzo demonstrated an admirable seriousness and considerable musical intelligence in committing so much complex material — music and text — to memory, especially in the second part of the performance. However, these cycles are particularly dependent on clear enunciation of the text for their full impact to be felt, and in this regard there is still some work to do.

Claire Seymour

Programme:

Ives: Memories; Songs my mother taught me; Walking; The Housatonic at Stockbridge.
Barber: Hermit Songs Op. 29.
Rorem: War Scenes.
Gerle: Drink Well and Sing.