26 Jul 2020

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

What better way for soprano Rowan Pierce and pianist, Christopher Glynn - who is also the artistic director of the Ryedale Festival - to begin their 2020 Ryedale Festival Online recital, than with Purcell’s consoling assurance? And, the duo offered us just that - 45 minutes of beguiling music, recorded in All Saint’s Church, Helmsley.

In this opening song, from Purcell’s Oedipus, Pierce’s lovely bright soprano seemed to soar on a breeze of optimism above the steady but buoyant tread of the piano’s ground bass. A slight quickening in the central episode, with its images of a defeated Alecto - the snakes dropping from her head, and the whip falling from her hands - heightened by Pierce’s careful enunciation, was followed by the slightest relaxation into the da capo repeat: a small nuance, but a powerful emotive effect. She employed a more intimate tone in ‘O Solitude’, which also walked with a fairly brisk step, helping Pierce to create a cohesive structure from the long, evolving phrases. It did mean, though, that some of Purcell’s decorative twists and turns lacked a certain spaciousness - and some of the vocal curls encompass some tricky spirals! Occasionally, the soprano added her own tasteful ornament, enhancing the introspective mood as the phrases unfolded like innermost thoughts and reflections. Glynn’s continuo elaborations were varied in texture - sometimes sparse with brief melodic inflections, elsewhere fuller flowing chords - and became increasingly flamboyant, at times less than idiomatic perhaps, but always complementing the growing intensity of the vocal line.

Romantic lieder followed. Schubert’s ‘Im Haine’ had a delightful spring in its step - a woodland walk during which woes were assuaged by warm sunbeams, murmuring breezes, and whispering scents. I can never hear Schumann’s ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ too many times: Pierce’s soprano acquired a velvety plushness and smoothness here, which was complemented by Glynn’s low cushioning chords. This is a brief lied, but Heine’s poem holds within its beautiful simplicity rich and varied feelings - from sweetness to sadness, from the certainty of love to the fear of loss - and Pierce and Glynn made each emotion speak from the music’s own heart. Mendelssohn’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ rippled with easy fluency, Pierce’s soprano flowing pure and free, on the ‘wings of song’.

Christopher Glynn Gerard Collett.jpgChristopher Glynn. Photo credit: Gerard Collett.

The broader canvas of Richard Strauss’s ‘Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden’ allowed Pierce to extend the range of vocal colours while her clear, light soprano seemed equally tailor-made for the moments of both melodic restlessness and tranquil poise. The accompaniment was airy, and the duo shaped an eloquent, vital narrative of wishes frustrated and hopes forlorn. Goethe tells a similar tale of unfulfilled promise and faded flowers that do not bedeck the beloved’s breast in Grieg’s ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ (which Pierce sang in German). Glynn’s gently pulsing syncopations established the momentum of the Allegretto tempo, as if propelled by the inner heaving of the poet-speaker’s heart, while Grieg’s modifying serioso was captured by the sustained focus and intense precision of the intervallic vocal melody, an intensity deepened by Glynn’s thoughtful heightening of the inter-phrase commentaries.

Three traditional songs permitted a little relaxation of the Romantic urgency and yearning, introducing a milder note of wistfulness. The gentle warmth and the shining clarity of ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ was an absolute joy, while in her unaccompanied rendition of ‘How blest are shepherds’, (which appears in Purcell’s King Arthur), Pierce focused less on the rhythm of the pastoral dance and more on the story-telling, articulating the text with utmost care, decorating the melody with the naturalness of a folk singer and flexibly teasing the rhythms at times to convey subtle changes and nuances - a slight diminuendo, rallentando and pause affectingly enhanced the pathos of the reflection, “And when we die ‘tis in each other’s arms”.

Turning to songs from their native land, Pierce and Glynn began their English sequence with John Ireland’s ‘If there were dreams to sell’. The dream that the protagonist of Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ poem wishes to buy is a “cottage Ione and still, with bow’rs night, shadowy, my woes to still”: Pierce conveyed this yearning with gleaming directness and sweet sincerity, the longing deepened by Glynn’s sensitive emphasis of harmonic nuances. Alan Murray’s ballad, ‘I’ll walk beside you’, introduced a not unwelcome touch of sentimentality, while Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ glittered with youthful exuberance and confidence.

At this time, when life as we have known it can seem lost in eons past, perhaps irrecoverable, Flanders and Swann’s ‘The Slow Train’ was an apt choice, lamenting as it does the passing of another age and way of life, one brought about by Beeching’s closures of railway stations and branch lines in the 1960s. To Glynn’s trundling locomotion, Pierce catalogued the list of places to which the slow train would no longer be travelling with clear-voiced resignation and regret. Introducing this song and the final item in this recital, Strauss’s ‘Morgen’, as she expressed her hope that the listening audience would “hold in your hearts the idea of live music, and sharing a space, sharing the emotions in real time, right next to each other”, Pierce had the glint of a tear in her eye. By the time she had sung Strauss’s paean to ‘tomorrow’ when the sun will shine again and the lovers will “gaze in each other's eyes in love’s soft splendour glowing”, I had many tumbling from my own. For a while, music had indeed spun its beguiling spell.

This recital is available to view until Sunday 16th August 2020. The full 2000 Ryedale Festival Online programme can be viewed at https://ryedalefestival.com/ryestream/ until the same date.

Claire Seymour

Music for a While : Rowan Pierce (soprano) Christopher Glynn (piano)

Purcell - ‘Music for a While’, ‘O Solitude’; Schubert - ‘Im Haine’; Schumann - ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’; Mendelssohn - ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’; Strauss - ‘Ich wollt' ein Sträusslein binden’; Grieg - ‘Zur Rosenzeit’; Trad. Three folk songs; Ireland - ‘If there were dreams to sell’; Murray - ‘I’ll walk beside you’; Quilter - ‘Love’s Philosophy’; Swann - ‘The Slow Train’; Strauss - ‘Morgen!’

Recorded at All Saints’ Church, Helmsley; Friday 24th July 2020.