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Performances

Lucy Crowe [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt Limited]
06 Jul 2014

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lucy Crowe [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt Limited]

 

Sibelius’ musical responses to the Finnish folk legend Kalevala are diverse in idiom and form, and they were pivotal in the development of the composer’s musical language and identity. Kullervo (a symphonic poem for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra) and the orchestral suite, Lemminkäinen (which includes the ever-popular The Swan of Tuonela are well-known, but few will be familiar with Luonnotar (1913), a tone poem for soprano and orchestra, which the Sibelius arranged for voice and piano in 1915. Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas and the text, from the first part of the Kalevala, tells of the creation of the world and the oceans.

Tilbrook’s quiet, rapid oscillations opened the work, creating an air of anticipation suggestive of a tense, poised moment before creation, as Luonnotar, the ‘maiden of the air’, floats alone in the ‘vast plains of the sky’. Crowe’s first entry lies low in the voice, but it was rich and strong, rising powerfully and with clarity, supported by simple, middle-register held chords; it was an ancient incantation, an expression of the goddess’s loneliness as she soars aloft. Luonnotar then descends into the fertile sea and — exploiting the open vowel sounds of the Finnish text, which she articulated convincingly — Crowe’s arcing, yearning lines were paradoxically both achingly beautifully and laden with anxiety as Luonnotar drifts in the turbulent waters, the latter evoked by Tilbrook’s sensitively graded rippling accompaniment.

Crowe mastered the fiendishly difficult, often very suddent, changes of register and, pronouncing the mythical spirit’s words of self-pity and fear, she whispered the eerily sighing vocal line with absolutely true intonation, the wide gap between the climbing soprano line and Tilbrook’s dark resonant bass intimating her alienation and despair. The hushed tremblings of the subsequent piano interlude were wonderfully controlled and veiled, before the re-entry of the voice initiated a sense of release: a bird appears, seeking the shores upon which to build its nest, and Crowe’s expansive line seemed suspended in the air as it built to the bird’s climactic other-worldly cries, ‘Ei! Ei!’ (No! No!), expressing the bird’s distress and exhaustion. Crowe’s breath control was incredibly impressive as she maintained a focused tone while grading the dynamic peaks and lows with sensitivity and skill.

After an astonishingly tumultuous piano commentary, the ensuing calm was deeply poignant: the Water Mother lifts her knee from the seas, upon which the bird can make its nest. Crowe’s variant of the lyrical phrases which had previously depicted Luonnotar’s regrets now assumed a more mysterious air, Tilbrook’s low fifths quietly but sonorously echoing far below. When the nest falls into the waters and the egg is broken into fragments, the essence of the sky and firmaments are released, and here the performers retreated almost to nothing, creating an ethereal tranquillity, Tilbrook’s ever-widening tessitura conjuring the limitless cosmos as Crowe’s final melody climbed with the crystalline exquisiteness of a star in the sky: a mystical close, but one whose sense of scarcely comprehensible vastness was also suggestive of the bleak horrors of the First World War.

Despite the enormous stamina demanded by Sibelius’s epic chronicle, Crowe had plenty in reserve for Berg’s Sieben Frühe Lieder which followed. Written in 1905-08, when the composer was still under the tutelage of Arnold Schönberg, the songs look back to the late Romantic musical worlds of Strauss, Mahler and Wolf, sideways to the compositional rigour of his teacher and at times — as in the whole-tone scales of the first song, ‘Nacht’ — to the harmonic palette of Debussy, and forwards to the expressive richness of Berg’s own later writing for the voice. ‘Die Nachtigall’ (The Nightingale, a setting of Theodor Storm) was powerfully direct, Crowe’s ecstatic exclamation, ‘Die Rosen aufgesprungen’ (The roses have sprung up) an outpouring of optimistic fervour.

‘Schilflied’ (Reed song) was wonderfully lyrica:,’ Crowe’s account of a lover’s journey along a secret forest path whose reedy borders symbolise the traveller’s inner emotions — passion and despair — was imbued with Romantic longing. The broad melodic gestures of ‘Traumgekrönt (Crowned with dreams) were confident and exuberant, while ‘Im Zimmer’ (In this room) demonstrated a more focused approach to the nuances of the text. The affecting harmonic nuances, and the voice’s semitonal fall, in the closing phrase of ‘Liebesode’ (Ode to love) wonderfully captured the indissoluble blend of Romantic joy and suffering. ‘Sommertage’ (Summer days) shone with gleaming brightness.

Throughout, Tilbrook was a communicative, thoughtful accompanist. The dark postlude to ‘Nacht’ was a portentous representation of the singer’s closing admonition, ‘O gib acht!’ (O take heed!), as the stars shine in the silent night above the gloom of the deep valley. In ‘Die Nachtigall’, the gentle, staccato syncopations in the central section of the song injection a subtle tension which propelled the music forward. Overall, a spirit of elation tinged with wistfulness was perfectly sustained throughout the sequence.

European Romanticism was superseded by the English folk tradition in the second half of the recital. First came four songs by Michael Head. The performers brought discerning drama to ‘Nocturne’, from the recitative-like opening, depicting the solitude of the moonlit scene, to the more urgent anguish of the abandoned lover’s recollections of love in the central verse. The much-loved ‘The ships of Arcady’ was serene, Crowe’s melody conveying the onlooker’s nostalgia for his vision of the passing ship, while ‘Beloved’ was a more impassioned representation of music’s erotic power.

Traditional folk songs, arranged variously by Britten and Phyllis Tate, highlighted the sweet purity of Crowe’s soprano, but also the intelligent way that she uses the voice to communicate an expressive narrative — the unaccompanied Irish ballad, ‘She moved thro’ the fair’, was particularly engaging. United by their repeated searches for lost love amid a natural world whose birds, flowers and fauna simultaneously embody, salve and agitate the singer’s emotions, these songs revisited — though in less anguished form — the Romantic vistas of the first half of the evening. In particular, the simple canon of ‘The ash grove’ was almost Schubertian, and while Crowe’s beautiful melody in ‘The Salley Gardens’ evoked a simpler mood, depth was added by Tilbrook’s attentiveness to the harmonic complexities of the accompaniment; the final lines, ‘But I was young and foolish/ And now am full of tears’ were discreetly moving. Much technical skill and vocal control is required to make these songs so effortlessly appealing and enthralling.

Walton’s virtuosic song-cycle A song for the Lord Mayor’s Table brought the concert to a rousing and impressive conclusion. Commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for the Festival of the City of London in 1962, the songs encapsulate the striking, absorbing juxtapositions of London life, presenting resounding church bells and street cries. Crowe sang with commanding vitality, injecting energy into the vocal lines, the tone lustrous and the intonation well-centred. The entrancing melody of ‘Glide Gently’, a setting of Wordsworth, was utterly beguiling and the concluding song, ‘Gay go up and gay go down’ (Text: anon.) particularly lovely.

There was much to admire and enjoy in this recital. However, the opening four songs by Schubert were disappointing; Crowe did not seem comfortable with the idiom and her tone was somewhat withdrawn. While Tilbrook’s introduction to ‘Der Fluss’ (The river) was eloquent and the accompaniment full of diverse colours, Crowe’s melody was rather unobtrusive; ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ (To be sung on the water) was similarly unfocused, although there were some judicious expressive rubatos. ‘Am den Mond’ (To the moon) found the soprano in brighter voice, and in ‘Nacht und Träume’ (Night and dreams) Crowe’s characteristic elegant lyricism was evident in the delicately articulated opening phrase, ‘Heil’ge Nacht, du sinkest nieder’ (Holy night, you float down). Sadly, in general in these lieder consonants were barely audible and vowels inaccurately shaped. Thankfully, Crowe quickly got into her stride, and we enjoyed an unusually diverse programme, communicated with directness and passion, concluding with a relaxed encore, ‘Summertime’.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Lucy Crowe, soprano; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday, 3rd July 2014.

Schubert, ‘Der Fluss’, ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, ‘An den Mond’, ‘Nacht und Träume’; Sibelius, Luonnotar; Berg, Sieben frühe Lieder; Head, ‘Nocturne’, ‘On the wings of the wind’, ‘The ships of Arcady’, ‘Beloved’; Folksongs from the British Isles: ‘The Ash Grove’ (arr. Britten), ‘The Salley Gardens’ (arr. Britten), ‘The lark in the clear air’ (arr. Tate), ‘She moved thro’ the fair’ (Trad/ Irish), ‘She’s like the swallow’ (arr. Britten); Walton, A Song for the Lord Mayor’s table.

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