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Christopher Ainslie [Photo by Denis Jouglet]
22 Jan 2015

Songs of Night and Travel, Wigmore Hall

The coming of ‘Night’ brings darkness, shadows and mystery; sleep, dreams and nightmares; fancies, fantasies and passions.

Songs of Night and Travel, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Christopher Ainslie [Photo by Denis Jouglet]


All of which featured in this interesting programme of nineteen- and early-twentieth-century song — some familiar, some rare — given by countertenor Christopher Ainslie, pianist James Baillieu and violist Gary Pomeroy (all of South African origin) at the Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Ainslie’s biographical note in the programme booklet reports that his future engagements this season include Gluck’s Orfeo at Opera de Lyon, and Handel’s Agrippina in Göttingen and Saul at Glyndebourne. This is the sort of repertoire which has won Ainslie deserved renown and seen him lauded as ‘A rock star of Baroque opera’ (New York Times); and, his technically masterful and vocally powerful performances have made one critic ‘keen to hear him in Britten and other florid roles, ancient and modern’ ( Seen & Heard). But, herein lays a problem which presumably this recital was intended to address: how is a countertenor to break the chains that bind him to roles from the Classical or mythic past, or to demonstrate that his voice can embody through its power and agility more than just majesty or ethereality, mystery or purity. Can the countertenor voice express the rich and diverse range of human emotions so characteristic of the texts of nineteenth-century lieder, for example?

This performance did not offer a definitive answer. There was much to admire. Ainslie has a pure, focused tone which he can darken and brighten at will. His delivery is controlled: his sustained notes are smooth and even, while runs and leaps demonstrate the nimbleness and suppleness of his powerful countertenor. There was nothing in this recital that was not poised, elegant and beautiful. But, at times Ainslie lacked the variety of tonal colour, the expressive nuance and sense of vocal freedom, and the innate responsiveness to textual meaning and the very sounds of the words, which is needed to fully or convincingly capture and convey the essence of ‘meaning’.

Ainslie started hesitatingly and did not seem comfortable in the first song, Ivor Gurney’s ‘Sleep’. The opening invocation, ‘Come, Sleep’, while crisply delivered, lacked warmth, and the cold, somewhat glassy tone did not seem fitting for an appeal for soothing solace from the day’s cares: ‘with thy sweet deceiving/ Lock me in delight awhile’. Pianist James Baillieu did imbue his oscillating semiquavers with some assuaging softness and sentiment, but Gurney’s wonderful climactic melody, ‘O let my joys have some abiding’, was strangely unmoving. However, the purity and stillness of Ainslie’s delivery was perfect for Roger Quilter’s ‘The Night Piece’ — one of the six songs of the cycle To Julia (Op.8, 1905), settings of poems from Robert Herrick’s vast collection, Hesperides (1648). The performers were alert to the imagery of the opening stanzas, the piano’s staccato quavers suggesting the ‘shooting stars’ and ‘sparks of fire’, the latter growing in intensity through the voice’s dotted-rhythm melisma. Ainslie’s concluding lines were impassioned and seductive — ‘And when I shall meet/ Thy silvery feet/ My soul I’ll pour into thee’ — while Baillieu’s accelerating close suggested that Julia had indeed been won.

Two songs by Schubert, ‘Nacht und Träume’ D.827 (Night and dreams) and ‘Die Sterne’ D.939 (The stars) were perhaps the least successful items of the evening. Though Ainslie found a legato translucence to depict the moonlight of the ‘Holy night’ in the former song, floating high above the dark, dreamy piano semiquaver accompaniment, and enriched his tone at the end of ‘Die Sterne’ to suggest the intensity of the stars’ shining blessing which links heaven and earth, in neither lied did he use the text expressively, in ways which might give greater character to the vocal phrases. Mendelssohn’s ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6 was more dramatic and penetrating. Begun in 1845 but not completed until 1847, the song was perhaps the composer’s way of coming to terms with his beloved sister Fanny’s death in May of that year. Here, the opening verses were touchingly introspective, the rising question, ‘Where now is … the sweet light of the loved one’s eyes?’ (‘Der Liebsten süßer Augenschein’) indicative of the protagonist’s love and pain. Baillieu pushed the tempo forward in the final stanza and the glowing vigour of the voice conjured the ‘cascade of bright sound’ which pours forth from the nightingale, conjoined with and consoling the poet-speaker.

Ainslie related the narrative clearly in Hugo Wolf’s quirky ‘Storchenbotschaft’ (1888) (Stork-tidings) but more animation was needed to capture the parodic irony of Mörike’s version of the folk legend that storks carry new babies to expectant parents. Baillieu’s twisting chromatic wriggles added humour, though, and the piano’s over-the-top postlude was fittingly riotous, as the new father greets the arrival of twins. The highlight of the first half was Richard Strauss’s ‘Nacht’ Op.10 No.3 (1885): again Baillieu contributed greatly to the power of the song, his opening pianissimo quavers delicately evoking the Night who ‘slips softly from the trees’, the repeated notes in the inner voices expressively nuanced. Here, too, Ainslie was more attentive to the text: the silver from the river and the gold of the cathedral’s roof gleamed in the penultimate verse, while a sense of mystery pervaded the final stanza depicting the plundered bush. The plunging octave of the final line, ‘O die Nacht, mir bangt, sie stehle Dich mir auch’ (Ah the night, I fear, will steal you too from me), was beautifully clear and deeply sensitive.

Either side of the interval, Ainslie was joined by viola player Gary Pomeroy, who had already demonstrated his relaxed expressive style in Frank Bridge’s elegiac Pensiero (1905) and stormy Allegro appassionato (1908) for viola and piano. In ‘Gestille Sehnsucht’ (Assuaged longing), the first of Brahms’s Two Songs Op.91, the warm viola counter-melodies and motifs blended attractively with Ainslie’s countertenor, highlighting the ‘soft voices’ of the birds and the stirring ‘desires’ of the poet-speaker. The double-stopped final cadence powerfully intimated the consummation of the singer’s longing. ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (Sacred lullaby) played to Ainslie’s strengths, displaying his sweet tone and vocal power, the latter most dramatically when the mother rebukes the raging wind for disturbing her sleeping child. Bridge’s Three songs with viola (1906-7) were not published until 1982 but judging from this splendid performance these settings, which share the theme of death, deserve to be more often heard in the concert hall. The trio brought forth the individual character of each song: the dissonant, mournful passions of ‘Far, far from each other’ (Matthew Arnold), the angry sense of loss and confusion in ‘Where is it that our soul doth go?’ (Heinrich Heine), and the consolation offered by the Romantic sublime in ‘Music when soft voices die’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley). Baillieu’s whispering, brushing chords in the latter were magical.

Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel concluded the recital. The opening song, ‘The vagabond’, set off at a vigorous pace which established an energy and onward motion which was sustained through the cycle. ‘Let beauty awake’ would have benefited from greater tonal variety, while ‘The roadside fire’ and ‘Whither must I wander?’ require a stronger folk-like robustness; but Ainslie once again exploited his ethereal tone and vocal control in ‘In dreams’, while Baillieu’s wonderful introduction made palpable the eponymous ‘infinite shining heavens’ of the following song. Best of all was ‘Youth and love’, in which the phrases flowed with mesmerising fluidity and freshness. The return of the vagabond’s stoic tread marked the end of the cycle; if Ainslie had not quite managed to inhabit the journeymen’s shoes, he had told his story engagingly.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Christopher Ainslie — countertenor, James Baillieu — piano, Gary Pomeroy — viola.

Songs of Night and Travel : Gurney — ‘Sleep’; Quilter, ‘The Night Piece’; Schubert — ‘Nacht und Träume’ D.827, ‘Die Sterne’ D.939; Mendelssohn — ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6; Richard Strauss — ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10 No.3; Hugo Wolf — ‘Storchenbotschaft’; Bridge — Pensiero, Allegro appassionato; Brahms — Two songs with viola Op.91; Anonymous — ‘I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger’; Bridge — Three songs with viola; Vaughan Williams — Songs of Travel. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 21st January 2015.

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