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Kate Royal [Photo by Weber]
12 May 2009

Kate Royal at Wigmore Hall

Soprano Kate Royal is reported to have said that singing at the Wigmore Hall is “like a religious experience”.

Kate Royal at Wigmore Hall, London; 7 May 2009
Schumann: 6 Lieder, Op.107; Brahms: Liebestreu; In der Fremde; Lied; Parole; Anklänge; Juchhe!; Schumann: Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, Op.135; Brahms: Murrays Ermordung. Nachtigallen schwingen. Wie die Wolke nach der Sonne. Der Frühling. Volkslied. Der Trauernde. Liebe und Frühling I & II.

Kate Royal, Soprano; Christopher Glynn, Piano.

Above: Kate Royal [Photo by Weber]


The stimulating programme presented on 7 May, a sequence of 25 songs by Schumann and Brahms devised by the pianist, Graham Johnson, certainly established a cerebral, even ‘spiritual’ mood — ‘serious’ music-making indeed. Regrettably, in the event Johnson was indisposed but, while it took him a little time to become accustomed to the Wigmore Hall acoustic, Christopher Glynn was in no way a ‘second-best’ replacement. His innate empathy with this repertoire was immediately apparent, and his alert responsiveness to the nuances of the texts was sustained throughout the performance.

As the 2004 winner of both the Kathleen Ferrier and John Christie awards, photogenic and market-friendly, 30-year-old Royal has caught the discerning listening public’s ear and eye during the past five years, with acclaimed performances at Covent Garden, English National Opera and Glyndebourne. And yet, while the warm beauty of Royal’s tone and the serious, focused application of an impressive musical intellect were much in evidence during this recital, the end result, while technically skilful and at times emotionally touching, was rather ‘underwhelming’.

On this occasion Royal seemed to take a long time to get into her stride; perhaps this is new repertoire which she has not fully mastered emotionally or dramatically. The opening fours songs by Schumann, selected from his Op.107 set, certainly demonstrated the dark creaminess of the lower range of Royal’s voice, and on the whole the rendering was musically accurate (excepting some wobbles of intonation during dynamic crescendos or peaks); but Royal did not fully convey the full expressive range of the texts.

There is much turbulence in these songs of sadness and loss, which were composed in 1851 - a time when Schumann’s health was deteriorating as the pressures on the newly appointed municipal director of music in Düsseldorf accumulated. The composer’s own psychological instability and subsequent suicide are foreshadowed and embodied; in ‘Herzeleid’, downwards spiralling semiquavers evoke the insanity and death of Ophelia, while the unrequited passion and emotional distress of an unappreciated, overlooked servant girl is conveyed by the dark, descending bass line in ‘Die Fensterscheiber’. Unfortunately, at the start of the recital Royal was rather overpowered by the accompaniment; perhaps she was insufficiently warmed up, but she seemed to lack genuine engagement with these mini-dramas. Glynn tenderly conjured the escalating grief of ‘Die Spinnerin’ and the unsentimental loneliness of ‘Im Wald’, but it was not until ‘Abendlied’ — in which the poet, Kinkel, pleas from his prison cell for a cessation of human fear and misery - that Royal fully realised the despair and anguish in Schumann’s melodic and harmonic gestures. Here, the duo effectively controlled the structure of the song, creating momentum and continuity.

One weakness of the performance was Royal’s diction; consonants were shabbily neglected and there was no real evidence of insight into the texts despite the soprano’s obvious musical intelligence; at times the result was a limited emotional range and a detachment from the emotional core of these lieder. Neither character nor dramatic situation were convincingly conveyed in the Brahms lieder - ‘Liebestreu’, ‘Im der Fremde’, ‘Lied’ (Op.3 Nos.1,5 and 6), ‘Parole’, ‘Anklänge’ (Op.7 Nos.2 and 3) — which concluded the first half; indeed, despite the apparent ease with which Royal surmounted the technical obstacles, it was not until the final song before the interval, ‘Juchhe!’ [‘Hurrah’!] that she got into her stride and began to complement the joyful playfulness and exuberance of the piano’s energetic accompaniment.

Royal seemed more in tune with the emotional sentiments of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ [‘Poems of Mary, Queen of Scots’ (Op.135)], with which she commenced the second half of this recital. The focused, warm tone of her lower register perfectly communicated the sincere outpourings of the condemned Queen. For this listener, the musical and dramatic peak was attained in ‘Abschied von der Weit’ [‘Farewell to the world’] and ‘Gebet’ [‘Prayer’], where Royal’s controlled lyricism, accompanied by a greater clarity of diction, captured both the sombreness and poignancy of the queen’s last moments. It was an original and striking programming choice to ‘interrupt’ this regal sequence with Brahms’ boisterous ‘Murrays Ermordung’ [Op.14 No.3, ‘The bonnie Earl o’Moray’], a setting of a folk poem in which a queen mourns her clandestine and illicit lover. Again, Royal’s technical assurance fully justified the juxtaposition, as the soprano proved herself able to convey heartfelt regret through a range of idioms.

In the concluding songs by Brahms, Royal finally discovered a dramatic energy and colour which until now had been lacking; ‘Nachtigallen schwingen’ [Op.6 No.6 ‘Nightingales flutter’], ‘Der Frühling’ [Op.6 No.2 ‘Spring’] and ‘Die Trauernde’ [Op.7 Np.5 ‘The sad maiden’] demonstrated that she can produce a myriad of colours to match and enhance the dramatic mood, the effortless melodic sweep and the sheer beauty of her timbre perfectly conveying the lyrical sensuality of these songs. For a singer accustomed to the operatic stage, however, Royal’s lack of physical movement — she scarcely moved her arms throughout these songs, preferring to place the expressive burden solely on the voice — was a little disconcerting. This rather short recital concluded with a single encore, the traditional song, ‘Early one morning’.

So, although there was much to admire, a convincing personal response was not always in evidence during this performance. Royal can without doubt pass the vocal trials but she is not always the mistress of the musico-dramatic challenges.

Claire Seymour

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