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Sir Thomas Allen [Photo by Sussie Ahlburg courtesy of Askonas Holt]
20 Nov 2014

Samling Showcase, Wigmore Hall

Founded in 1996, Samling describes itself as a charity which ‘inspires musical excellence in young people’.

Samling Showcase

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sir Thomas Allen [Photo by Sussie Ahlburg courtesy of Askonas Holt]


For this delightful programme of song, five of the outstanding young musicians who have been nurtured by the organisation came together with Samling’s patron, Sir Thomas Allen, and pianist Malcolm Martineau, for an evening of individual and collective music-making which certainly reached inspired heights of excellence and pleasure.

Mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly was given the tough task of opening this annual Showcase, the first half of which explored the song repertoire of the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries; and she added to the challenge by beginning with Richard Strauss’s ‘Ruhe, Meine Seele!’ (Rest my soul), its slow, mysteriously unfolding opening requiring considerable composure and control. Kelly’s warm-toned soprano was co well-centred, and the ambiguous chromatic progressions skilfully negotiated, although as the song progressed she adopted a wider vibrato which — while it enriched the timbre, without disturbing the intonation — I found a little distracting. She used the rising register towards the close of the song to inject a note of anger and the heightened drama was enhanced by pianist James Sherlock’s impassioned accompanying gestures. This air of turbulence continued in the second of Strauss’s Op.21 songs, ‘Cäcilie’, which was composed on 9th September 1894, the day before his marriage to the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Here, Kelly showed that she has a powerful upper register (perhaps even overly forceful at times) to match her rich low resonance.

Fervent Strauss was followed by Verdian joyful doting, as tenor Joshua Owen Mills presented a vibrant rendition of Fenton’s ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola’ (From my lips, a song of ecstasy flies) from Falstaff, in which the enamoured Fenton arrives at the oak tree and sings of his happiness. Accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, Owen Mills displayed a fine Italianate ring which perfectly complemented the textual sonnet’s many references to music and singing. The tenor balanced a bright gleam with tenderness. Fenton’s final line (Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure) drew forth onto the platform soprano Lucy Hall, his Nannetta, who responded warmly: ‘Indeed, they renew it, like the moon’. Hall then transported us to late nineteenth-century France, with Debussy’s ‘La Romance d’Ariel’. The lucidity of Sherlock’s piano introduction was bewitching and Hall showed plenty of courage in tackling the stratospheric surprises that Debussy throws in, although the intonation sometimes wandered at the top. And, if the tone was not always sufficiently silky, there was plenty of dramatic feeling and Hall demonstrated an innate, sure sense of phrase structure. She was more at home in the ensuing number, Poulenc’s ‘Le petit garçon trop bien portant’ (The too-healthy little boy) in which her voice took on a more soubrette-ish quality which successfully conveyed the song’s dry humour.

A ‘double duet’ followed — Schumann’s ‘Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen’ (The girl has blue eyes) from the Spanische Liebeslieder — in which Owen Mills’ buoyant tenor blended beautifully with Ross Ramgobin’s burnished baritone to convey the exuberance of youthful joy and love; pianists Sherlock and Martineau enjoyed the spritely rhythms of the accompaniment. Ramgobin has an elegant, full baritone and his rendition of ‘Wandrers Nachtlied I’ (Wanderer’s nightsong I), the first of three songs by Schubert, had a gentle ease and well-shaped sense of line. In ‘Am Strome’ (By the river), a subtle employment of rubato and tender diminuendo in the final verse movingly conveyed the protagonist’s yearning ‘for kinder shores’, while Sherlock’s short piano postlude offered some a hint of warmth and consolation. ‘Sehnsucht’ (Longing) was underpinned by the quiet but troubled throbbing of the repeating piano motif, the vocal line once again communicating clear emotions and meaning, thanks to Ramgobin’s astute appreciation of structure and line.

After these performances by the Samling scholars, it was Sir Thomas Allen’s own turn to take to the platform in four songs from Arthur Somervell’s infrequently heard narrative song-cycle, Maud, which is based upon Tennyson’s eponymous monodrama. Allen’s tone was varied, by turns shadowy and light, in response to the textual sentiments, and while the intonation was not always absolutely true at the top of the voice, the baritone’s power to move remains undiminished, and he conjured a sentimental mood, especially in the final song, ‘O that ‘twere possible’, whose very brevity enhanced the pathos. Allen was joined by Rachel Kelly in the final item of the first half, two duet arrangements from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. ‘Verlorne Müh’ (Wasted effort) raised a wry smile, as Allen’s dismissed Kelly’s romantic pleading, ‘Närrisches Dinterie,/ Ich geh dir halt nit’ (Foolish girl,/ I’ll not go with you); Sherlock’s accompaniment deepened the caricature, as Kelly’s wheedling and luring became ever more brazen and Allen’s brush-offs increasingly brusque. ‘Trost im Unglück’ (Consolation in sorrow), in which a hussar and his beloved engage in a noisy, belligerent exchange, brought the first half to a close in fractious fashion!

If there had been a slight sense of nervous excitement in the initial sequence of songs, the mood relaxed after the interval. Owen Mills rose to the challenges of Liszt’s dramatic ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno’ (Blessed be the day) and the composer’s more reflective ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ (I beheld on earth angelic grace) from Tre Sonetti di Petrarca, and if sometimes the voice was a little tight in the fortissimo passages at the top, the tenor displayed a pleasing light head voice; the conclusion to the latter song evoked a mood of quiet reverie, which was enhanced further by Sherlock’s tender rippling postlude chords. Ramgobin’s performance of Wagner’s ‘Wie Todesahnung … O du ein holder Abendstern’ from Tannhäuser was one of the highlights of the evening, full of colour and interest, and sung with a warm, honeyed tone.

Joined by Owen Mills (as Count Belfiore), Lucy Hall was a beguiling Marchioness Violante Onesti (disguised as the gardener, Sandrina) in ‘Dove mai son!’ (Wherever can I be!) from La finta giardiniera, her voice blooming beautifully. The virtuosic runs of Rossini’s ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ from Semiramide caused Rachel Kelly no problem, as she demonstrated great flexibility and striking power, although at times there was a flinty edge to the tone. Expressive recitative and an eloquent piano introduction by Martineau preceded Hall’s sorrowful ‘Oh! quante volte’ (Oh! how much time) from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monthecchi, which was notable for the soprano’s soft tone and pliant phrasing. To conclude, all four singers came together for a spirited performance of the final quartet from Rigoletto, ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’, in which the intricacy of the varied musical perspectives and changing relationships was masterfully crafted. Bernstein’s ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ was a stirring, radiant encore to a rousing evening of shared music-making.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Samling Scholars: Lucy Hall soprano, Rachel Kelly mezzo-soprano, Joshua Owen Mills tenor, Ross Ramgobin baritone, James Sherlock piano; Sir Thomas Allen baritone; Malcolm Martineau piano.

Richard Strauss: ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’, ‘Cäcilie’; Verdi: ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola’ from Falstaff, ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ from Rigoletto; Debussy, ‘La Romance d’Ariel’; Poulenc, ‘Le petit garçon trop’ bien portant’; Schumann ‘Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen’ from Spanische Liebeslieder; Schubert, ‘Wandrers Nachtlied I’, ‘Am Strome’, ‘Sehnsucht’ ; Arthur Somervell, Four Songs from Maud; Mahler. ‘Verlorne Müh’, ‘Trost im Unglück’ from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Liszt, ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno’, ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ from Tre Sonetti di Petrarca; Wagner, ‘Wie Todesahnung … O du ein holder Abendstern’ from Tannhäuser; Mozart, ‘Dove mai son!’ from La finta giardiniera; Rossini, ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ from Semiramide; Bellini, ‘Oh! quante volte’ from I Capuleti e i Monthecchi. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 12th November 2014.

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