25 Jul 2020

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

With such good fortune ‘on hold’ for the time being, my musical appetite is being kept satisfied and refreshed by both some exciting streamed performances and the wealth of terrific recordings which each day ping into my email in-box or arrive with an enticing thump on the door-mat.

The latest such arrival is Flax and Fire, the debut recital album of tenor Stuart Jackson, on the Orchid label. I was impressed when I first heard Jackson in 2015 - a couple of years after he’d completed his training at the Royal College of Music - when he took the role of the Parthian king, Osroa, in Classical Opera’s production of J.C. Bach's Adriano in Siria. The company had just launched its MOZART 250 project, and Jackson has since been a frequent and admired presence in Classical Opera’s performances (including Don Giovanni and the UK premiere of Niccolò Jommelli’s Il Vologeso in 2016) and recordings (including Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione in 2017). The silken-voiced tenor has been making an increasing impact on larger stages too: as Iro in the ROH’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse at the Roundhouse, in Handel at Glyndebourne and on tour with the company, in ENO’s 2018 Salome, and at Garsington where he took the role of Vašek in last year’s superb The Bartered Bride.

In the songs presented on Flax and Fire, Jackson is accompanied by pianist Jocelyn Freeman, who is also founder-director and curator of SongEasel , a new initiative established to provide a platform for song in South East London. The focus of the songs is, says Freeman, ‘devotion and passion’, and the repertoire chosen reflects the ‘numerous undercurrents and layers’ within immense affection.

Stuart Jackson Gerard Collett photography.jpgStuart Jackson. Photo credit: Gerard Collett photography.

Songs by Wolf, Liszt and Schumann form the central core of the disc, and the poets set - Mörike, Rückert, Kerner, Halm, Eichendorff - form a mini-compendium of German Romantic poetry. The Wolf sequence begins with the first of three songs from the composer’s Mörike-Lieder. ‘Peregrina I’ allows Jackson to display his wonderfully legato phrasing, gentle tone and precise diction, but it is Freeman who perhaps shows the stronger appreciation of accumulating rhythmic and harmonic tension, ebbing away with pathos and vulnerability in the piano postlude. That said, the tenor’s climactic appeal - “Willst, ich soll kecklich mich und dich entzünden” (Wish me boldly to consume us both in fire” - is arrestingly charged with presentiments of sex and death, both impassioned and dark. A calm descends, initially at least, with the protagonist’s tentative hopes of fulfilment, in ‘An die Geliebte’: floating through the extended phrases Jackson captures the fragility of the dream, but then, with the sonnet’s volta, his spirits and melodic flight fall, unrest and distress conveyed by the piano’s disturbing rumblings. Freeman draws wonderful aural images, first of the beloved’s gentle, angelic breathing, then of the stars which sing their song of light.

‘Verschwiegene Liebe’ is the third of Wolf’s Eichendorff-Lieder. Freeman’s delicate whisper summons the tenor’s aspiring dreams, and Jackson rises bravely and beautifully to the whispered peak, “Die Nacht ist verschwiegen,/ Gedanken sind frei.” (The night is silent, thoughts are free.) The repeat of this phrase at the close of the second stanza is wonderfully intimate: paradoxically ecstatic and serene. Returning to Mörike, ‘Nimmersatte Liebe’ closes the group. In the song’s outer sections, Jackson and Freeman establish a lovely momentum as the vocal phrases expand and withdraw naturally. Jackson fluently integrates quite extreme and sudden dynamic changes and injections of intensity within a prevailing idiom which balances urgency and pleasure, as the protagonist delights in insatiable love. The syncopated antagonisms of the central episode feel, however, somewhat too antagonistic: the complex rhythms and fluctuating pulse should indeed feel discomforting, but absolute ensemble precision is required for the insistent gnawing ‘tug’ of the dialectic to achieve its full effect.

Wolf’s confidential miniatures are followed by Liszt’s dramatic, operatic and expansive, Tre sonetti di Petrarca, composed after a sojourn in Italy during 1838-39 when the composer and Marie D’Agoult read Dante and Petrarch together. The latter poet’s glimpse of a woman named Laura, in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon on Good Friday in 1327 initiated a poetic quest of 366 rime sparse in search of the elusive beloved of his vision. Liszt’s ‘Pace non trovo’ surely encompasses every emotion experienced on that journey, and Jackson and Freeman make us feel each and every of the poet’s oxymoronic extremes. Jackson seems to find the Italian language a more natural fit, and he relishes the operatic scope and unceasing changefulness of the song, climbing to sustained summits - what a resounding, sure Db! - with compelling conviction and panache. Freeman is unwaveringly eloquent in her interpretation of the piano’s turbulent dramas and songful reflections.

‘Benedetto sia ’l giorno’ is aptly fervent, rippling with a barely suppressed intensity which is released by the piano’s quivering harmonic progressions, prompting powerful vocal blossoming. Jackson’s truly tenor rings with ardour, and his control of the stratospheric climaxes and their descent is impressive. Only one tiny breath, for the final ‘-te’ of ‘Benedette’, when the protagonist blesses the many voices that have echoed when he has called Laura’s name, mars an otherwise pristine delivery - and that can be forgiven, such is Jackson’s commitment to the preceding full-blooded, open-hearted crescendo. The duo capture the visionary otherworldliness of ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’; Freeman’s shaping of the astonishing harmonic ‘swivel’ before the invocatory appeal, “Amor! Sennol valor, pietate, e doglia” (Love! wisdom! valour, pity and grief), is brilliantly judged, and Jackson sustains the reverential mystery of the song most affectingly.

The Schumann selection begins with one of the composer’s later songs, ‘Mein schöner Stern!’, a setting of a poem from Rückert’s Liebesfrühling which was included in Schumann’s Minnespiel Op.101 of 1849. Jackson delivers a masterclass in how to evoke consoling joy and controlled rapture, supported by Freeman’s sensitive complementing of the vocal line and tender bed of repeating quavers. Schumann indicates that the rhapsodic conflict between the ecstasy and pain of love expressed by the poet speaker in ‘Widmung’, the opening song of Myrthen Op.25 (1840) is to be sung ‘innig lebhaft’ - intimate and lively. Jackson sings with exemplary phrasing and beautiful tone, though he struggles a little when the melody dips low, but the tempo here feels to me far too pedestrian to capture the pleasures and animation inspired by this essential Romantic contradiction.

‘Stirb’, Lieb’ und Freud’ (from Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner Op.35 (1840)) also feels a little too measured, the piano’s steady crotchets a rather deliberate step rather than a fluid stream. One result is that there is little room for relaxation and diminishment in the closing three trimeter lines of each stanza, such as might represent the change in the poetic form and the crystallisation of the poetic sentiment - an image, a plea, a lamentation. Instead - and although the sole dynamic marking that Schumann employs throughout the song is piano, with some delicate, nuanced ebbs and flows - Jackson chooses these stanza-closing epiphanies as the moment to inject some heft and incisiveness, particularly when the titular phrase, “Stirb’, Leib’ und Freund!”, allows for some plosive vigour. The final lines receive the same forceful treatment, though the image is a fragile one - a heart, unnoticed, unrequited, breaks: “Mein Herz zerbricht,/ Stirb’, Leib’ und Licht!” Geisternähe (from Lieder und Gesänge Op.77 No.3 (1850) is a more satisfying evocation of Friedrich Halm’s heartfelt adoration, as Jackson easefully conveys the blooming from affectionate intimacies to gratifying happiness and comfort, in barely two minutes.

The Romantic lieder are framed by English song. Jackson is fulsome of voice in ‘Man is for the woman made’, Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s song, which opens the disc in spirited fashion. Freeman’s decorous piano interjections initially seem to have a wry smile on their face but become increasingly flamboyant and boisterous. A gift from Prince Ludwig of Hesse, in 1959, of Goethe’s complete works - after the composer had dedicated his Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente Op.61 to the Prince, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday in the preceding year - may have inspired Britten to set the German poet’s ‘Um Mitternacht’, though an almost compulsive to revisit verbal and musical images and realisations of ‘sleep’, ‘dreams’ and ‘the night’ may have also played its part. Freeman powerfully captures the frightening infiniteness of the darkness and Jackson communicates the reverence, mystery and metaphysical magnificence of the heavenly and cosmological expanse, negotiating the challenging twists of the vocal line through its murky harmonic waters with skill and control.

Britten’s first Canticle, ‘My Beloved is Mine’, gives the disc its title and is, for me, its highlight: “For I was flax and he was flames of fire.” The text is derived from the Song of Solomon, and Jackson delivers both the sensitive blissfulness and full-throated declamatory exultations with equal perspicacity and assurance. The final two stanzas, driven by Freeman’s propulsive piano breaths, are a sincere celebration and glorification of sexual passion, the fading repetitions of the final image - an “everlasting sign,/ That I my best-beloved’s am; that he is mine” - an intimation of eternal love and satisfaction.

William Denis Browne’s ‘To Gratiana dancing and singing’, which sets words by Richard Lovelace and was composed in February 1913 for the tenor Steuart Wilson, is a glorious ‘epilogue’ - free, spacious, relaxed and utterly consoling in its devotion and belief.

Claire Seymour