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Ailish Tynan [Photo courtesy of Intermusica]
11 Apr 2010

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Thoughtfully devised by Iain Burnside, this recital juxtaposed ballad with art song, pastoral with love lyric, dark with light, mournful with carefree. An imaginative sequence of songs, woven together according to linking themes, confirmed that Ireland truly is a ‘land of song’.

Ailish Tynan, Wigmore Hall

Ailish Tynan, soprano; Iain Burnside, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Friday 9th April 2010.

Programme: Celtic Woman:
Prologue: Tread Softly
Lovers, Mothers, Sisters
Joyce’s Women
With Your Guns and Drums
Epilogue: The Blind Man he can See


A Prologue, ‘Tread Softly’, opened the door to the Irish imagination. Thomas Dunhill’s ‘The cloths of heaven’, a presentation of Yeats’ oft-set poem, skilfully captures the depth of the poet’s passion and the fragility of his dreams, in gently tolling chords and a delicately meandering vocal line. Immediately apparent was Burnside’s instinctive sensitivity to the rhythms and colours of Irish lyric poetry, quietly evoking both the shining ‘golden and silver light’ of heavens’ cloths and the ‘dim and [the] dark’ shadows of night.

Indeed, throughout the recital the piano played an integral part in the narrative: shaping and pacing the drama as in ‘The bard of Armagh (arranged Herbert Hughes); establishing the emotional ambience as in the cascading ripples and swirls which open Frank Bridge’s ‘Goldenhair’, with its delicate piano postlude, or the sweeping modal scales which convey the tempestuous deluge of Herbert Howell’s ‘The Flood’; drawing forth a particular poetic nuance, as at the close of Hughes’ ‘She weeps over Rahoon’, where the trickling piano descent perfectly evoked the ‘muttering rain’ which succumbed to raging flood in the subsequent song. Surprisingly, considering that she was on ‘home territory’, Ailish Tynan was initially less comfortable; her intonation was insecure in the opening song and took some time to settle, and she seemed ill at ease throughout the first half of the recital. Tynan’s voice is a powerful instrument and she worked hard to capture the pianissimo restraint of the tender lyrics, but her worthy concern to interpret and colour the text occasionally led her to over-emphasise a particular word or phrase producing an inelegant interruption to the melodic line, and at times threatening to enlarge textual nuances into disproportionate melodrama. Fortunately, Edmund Pendleton’s ‘Bid adieu’, which closed the first half, signalled a change in confidence and control: here Tynan relished the upward flourish of ‘Happy love is come to woo’ and evoked the warm, tender eroticism of ‘Begin thou softly to unzone/ Thy girlish bosom unto him’. She returned after the interval in a more relaxed mode, delighting in the characterisations and narratives, moving smoothly from energetic declaration to sweet yearning.

The first sequence of songs, ‘Lovers, Mother, Sisters’, opened with a slightly tentative rendering of one of Benjamin Britten’s most well-known and accomplished arrangements – his poignant setting of Yeats’ ‘The Salley Gardens’. Britten returned in the second half, ‘Avenging and bright’ and ‘The last rose of summer’ forming part of the ‘With your Guns and Drums’ selection. Both songs are characterised by the composer’s striking attention to detail, and in the former Burnside enjoyed the defiant flourishes, the running bass line and contrapuntal energy, which accompany the history of Conor, King of Ulster, whose treachery in putting to death the three sons of Usna is considered one of the greatest of tragic Irish tales. ‘The last rose of summer’, a setting of Thomas Moore, was one of the highlights of the evening: Britten’s ‘Screw-like’ harmonies evoke the unsettling loneliness of lover languishing after the death of her soldier-lover, and subtle changes of tempo and dynamic were expertly controlled by Burnside and Tynan.

It was the less familiar voices, however, who offered the real treasures in this programme. Herbert Hughes was a founder member of the Irish Folk Song Society of London in 1903, and he was represented here by both boisterous and tender settings of traditional Irish melodies. Unfortunately, although she conveyed the animation of the unruly sailor in Hughes’ lively arrangement of the ‘Marry me now’, Tynan forgot the words in the final verse, omitting four lines and thereby causing the lusty sailor to sound even more desperate in his final pleas for wedlock! Hughes’ setting of ‘The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby’ is a sad, sombre night-song, and here Tynan employed a warm lower register, conveying the darkness of the solemn evening and creating an effective contrast with the piano’s otherworldly evocation of the ghostly ‘rings of fog’ which wreath ‘the Green Man’s thorn’.

Hughes was also liberally represented in the second half of the programme, where a more relaxed Tynan powerfully captured both the bitterness of the drama of ‘Johnny I hardly knew ye!’ and the quiet despair of ‘Johnny Doyle’, the latter conveyed by secure and controlled octave unisons with the piano at the close: ‘You’ll send for Johnny Doyle, mother, but I fear it is too late,/ For death it is coming and sad is my fate.’ Three further Hughes’ arrangements ended the recital: ‘When through life unblessed we rove’, ‘I know where I’m goin’’, whose open-ended harmonic sequences suggest the certitude of the singer’s journey to her loved one, and the light-hearted ‘Tigaree torum orum’.

The Anglo-Irish composer, writer, collector and arranger, E.J. Moeran, spent the spring of 1948 living with a group of tinkers in south-west Ireland, assembling his collection Songs from County Kerry. The haunting harmonies and melancholy lyricism of ‘The lost lover’ are typical of his touching idiom, and in ‘The Roving Dingle boy, Tynan achieved a flowing naturalism.

Alongside these ‘conventional’ arrangements and song, Burnside had some surprises in store. The programme notes reminded us that Samuel Barber had a lifelong interest in Irish poetry, including the work of Joyce and Yeats; his Ten Hermit Songs set words translated from anonymous Irish texts from the early Middle Ages – thoughts, observations and poem which were jotted down on the margins of manuscripts by scholars and monks. The enlarged, ‘operatic’ scope of the third of these songs, ‘St Ita’s Vision’, appealed to Tynan’s sense of drama, and she effectively conveyed the forceful passion of St Ita, Bride of Munster, in her quasi-recitative declaration that she will accept nothing less than a baby to nurse. Both singer and pianist captured both the passion of St Ita’s commitment and the transcendence of the vision, Tynan’s sweetness – ‘Infant Jesus, at my breast,/ By my heart every night,’ – complemented by Burnside’s concluding suggestion of an ethereal choir of heavenly lyres. Similarly, the last song in the cycle, ‘The desire for hermitage’, offers an expansive emotional canvas, one which the performers exploited effectively. Even more unusual, and thought-provoking, was Burnside’s inclusion of John Cage’s setting of lines adapted from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, ‘The wonderful widow of eighteen springs’, which, characteristically, involved some rearranging and preparation of the piano. The spare, still melody, enlivened by occasional leaps of a fifth, was accompanied by rhythmic tapping on different parts of the closed piano, producing a haunting ambience which successfully suggested the fragmentary reminiscences of the text.

Where does arrangement end and composition begin? This is a question Burnside asks in the programme notes, prompted by the inclusion of Hughes’ original composition, ‘She weeps over Rahoon’ – an intense setting of Joyce’s spare and stark evocation of the bleak rain plaintively falling on Ireland’s western coast. Composers may, like Hughes, seek to render these melodies faithfully as they have been heard for hundreds of years; or they may, like Britten for example, establish their own stamp on a familiar melody. For the performer, surely the same questions arise: how to engage with, and respect, a tradition, while offering something personal and new. Though a little unsure of her path at the start of the evening, Tynan had, by the end, found her way home, and her encore, a simple but fresh rendering of the traditional melody, ‘Marble Halls’, sent us all home happy.

Claire Seymour

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