17 Jun 2016

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Horovitz has had a prolific career as a conductor, teacher, opera director and composer. His works number sixteen ballets, nine concertos, two one-act operas, chamber music, works for brass band, television and radio, and a number of choral cantatas - most famously Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo.

Soprano Susanna Fairbairn, a PLG Young Artist in 2015, performed four of Horovitz’s compositions, accompanied by pianist Matthew Schellhorn, beginning with Lady Macbeth, which was written for the 1970 Festival of Bergen. The ‘Scena’ presents settings of three speeches from Shakespeare’s play and charts the queen’s progression from grandeur to guilt, majesty to madness. Fairbairn gave a powerful dramatic performance which captured the force of the music’s rhetoric. Her full, glossy tone conveyed the self-assurance of Lady Macbeth’s aspirations for power, when she learns of her husband’s lauded success on the battlefield - ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be’. And, she declaimed the challenging vocal lines, which depict the Lady’s mental distress, with conviction, above Schellhorn’s asymmetrical piano gestures. Schellhorn’s accompaniment is as much part of the drama as the queen’s magniloquence and the pianist crafted the arguments eloquently and with precision. Fairbairn had the measure of the operatic intensity of the work which compresses an extraordinary gamut of emotions into its nine minutes.

Susanna_Fairbairn.pngSusanna Fairbairn

Though Shakespeare’s text is well-known, and Fairbairn’s diction good, it still would have been helpful to have had the text printed in the programme. The same was true for the following song, ‘Zum 11. März’, a 1998 setting of a German text by Theodor Körner (1811). 11 March is a date of special significance for Austrian emigrés, for it was the date in 1938 of Austria’s Anschluss to Germany. Fairbairn spun the simple lyrical melody with a lovely gentleness and lustre, floating the final phrase most beautifully. ‘The Garden of Love’ (2015) had a silky wistfulness, perfectly attuned to Blake’s text which celebrates the naturalness of human desire in the face of the Church’s repressive restrictiveness.

Fairbairn and Schellhorn opened the recital with Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées. The cool, quiet piano introduction of ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ (This is the languorous ecstasy) led into an unhurried vocal descent of calm dreaminess. Fairbairn’s soprano brightened and became more incisive as Verlaine described the burbling and whispering of the wood’s choir of voices, then drifted off, languidly, as the imagery of swirling water evolved into a soul’s lament. At the climax of the vocal line, Fairbairn hit the high A right in the centre of the note and skilfully controlled the dynamic arc, closing on a hushed, low murmur.

Schellhorn’s oscillating semiquavers evoked the ripple of the rain that ‘weeps in my heart’ in ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, and Fairbairn again demonstrated impressive technique, controlling the rising and plunging octaves which convey the poet-speaker’s emotional unrest and distress. Both the warmth of her lower range and the crystalline brilliance of the top were in evidence in ‘L’ombre des arbres’ (The shadow of the trees). Tight left-hand trills beneath crisp staccatos were a perfect springboard for the voice’s nimble instruction, ‘Tournez, tournez’ (O whirl and twirl’), in ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Wooden horses), in which the tempo eased, then flowed, with naturalness. The opening of ‘Aquarelles I. Green’ was graceful and free, the low-lying close mysterious and veiled. On the whole, Fairbairn’s French was fairly idiomatic, but would have benefitted from more distinct consonants, and this was particularly noticeable in the declamatory opening of ‘Spleen’. Debussy’s cycle was followed by Fauré’s ‘Après un rêve’, in which Fairbairn’s radiant sheen surged through the long, flowing phrases.

The central works in the evening’s programme were presented by pianist Dominic Degavino. A Park Lane Young Artist in 2015, Degavino is a rising star. At 16 years of age he was a category finalist in the BBC Young Musician competition; two years later he won the Audience Prize at the Brant International Piano Competition; since then he’s added the Ker Memorial Prize at the Royal Over-seas League Music Competition and most recently won the piano section of the 2016 Tunbridge Wells International Young Concert Artists Competition. His deeply communicative performance of Beethoven’s Op.2 No.3 Sonata confirmed that these successes will surely be followed by many more. The Allegro con brio had plenty of spark: the passagework was taut and the frequent trills and turns razor-sharp. After a changeable development section, the return of the opening theme was charmingly insouciant.

The Adagio conveyed a wonderful composure and gravity, the theme - gorgeous in its simplicity - formed of single-bar units which merged fluently into a thoughtful whole. As the left hand repeatedly crossed the decorative undulations in the right, the syncopated sighing motifs of the melody were beautifully crafted. The arpeggio-triplets of the trio of the Scherzo: Allegro streamed as if conjured by a flourish of a magician’s wand, while the chiselled crispness of the Allegro assai finale was invigorating. After the interval, Degavino revealed the many moods of Schumann’s G Minor Sonata Op.22, by turns troubled then soothed, expertly moving from bravura to restfulness. The Andantino was particularly tender. Degavino had a strong sense of the overall structure of the sonata and communicated this clearly.

The recital came to a vivacious close with Horovitz’s Foie-Gras, a setting of Michael Flanders paean to gluttony. Fairbairn entered enthusiastically into the cabaret high-spirits, whispering conspiratorially then gushing exuberantly, whirling with abandon across the Wigmore Hall stage. Taking to the platform to accept the warm applause, Horovitz was surprised to be presented with a birthday cake, and cut the celebratory slice with panache.

An afterthought … with the ‘Brexit’ campaigners seemingly in the ascendant, and a ‘Leave’ vote looking ever more possible, Piers Burton-Page’s programme tribute to Horovitz seems most apt: ‘In a few days’ time we shall learn whether Britain has, scarcely believably, turned its back on Europe. Once, we knew better. Thanks for coming, Joe. And for staying.’

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Susanna Fairbairn: soprano; Matthew Schellhorn: piano; Dominic Degavino: piano.

Claude Debussy: Ariettes oubliées; Gabriel Fauré: 3 Mélodies Op.7 No.1 ‘Après un rêve’; Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C major Op.2 No.3; Robert Schumann: Piano Sonata in G minor Op.22; Joseph Horovitz: Lady Macbeth - a Scena, ‘Zum 11. März’, ‘The Garden of Love’, ‘Foie-gras’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13th June 2016.