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Performances

Bethan Langford [Source: http://www.bethanlangford.com/]
15 Apr 2015

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Bethan Langford [Source: Bethan Langford]

 

The foundation has diverse and commendable aims, from encouraging and supporting young musicians on the threshold of their careers, to initiating educational programmes for school children from underprivileged backgrounds, to performing public recitals at two London hospitals and working with patients on their wards.

Concordia also provide public concerts at prestigious venues across London, and this Annual Prize Winners Concert at the Wigmore Hall, in association with the Worshipful Company of Musicians, was one such occasion. British mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford added the Concordia Founder’s Prize to a long list of awards that she has received in recent years. A student on the Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Langford is the recipient of the School’s Susan Longford Prize, the Paul Hamburger lieder prize and the Violette Szabo award for English song. She also won the 2013 John Fussell Award and is a Samling Scholar, and is a recipient of the Elizabeth Eagle-Bott Award for visually impaired musicians from the RNIB. Langford was accompanied here by pianist Ben-San Lau, winner of the Concordia Foundation’s Serena Nevill Prize.

Langford and Lau’s first sequence of songs juxtaposed the serene and spiritual with the rumbustious and rollicking. Charles Ives’s ‘Songs my mother taught me’ was written in 1895, fifteen years after Dvořák’s more famous setting, which we would hear later in the evening. Langford was focused and direct, the tone open and well-rounded. The steadiness of line, despite the low tessitura and long phrases, was impressive and typical of the considerable composure and maturity that she displayed throughout the recital. Lau complemented the softly rising arcs in the voice with delicately oscillating octaves above a low intoning drone in the bass, and the subtle shifting of the harmonies and musical layers in the piano against the gentle vocal melody created a spaciousness and timelessness.

Herbert Howell’s ‘King David’ followed. This is one of Howell’s finest songs, and one of many settings that he made of poetry by his friend Walter de la Mare. Here Langford was a clear and unaffected storyteller: she used the rhythmic flexibilities of the score and her alluring tone to imbue the tale of King David’s sorrow with passion and sincerity, building an operatic ‘scena’ of great intensity. The richness and power of the vocal line communicated the anguish that haunted the King’s heart despite the soothing pleasures of the playing of one hundred harps. Yet, there was gentleness and poignancy too, as the King wanders in his garden and is uplifted by the innocent song of the nightingale, even though this little bird — like Hardy’s darkling thrush — is oblivious to his dark feelings: ‘Tell me, thou little bird that singest,/ Who taught my grief to thee?’ Lau’s delicate traceries and arpeggios gave voice to the bird’s melancholy utterances, and the piano postlude evoked the elegiac loveliness of the Georgian poets.

The darkness was more overt in two songs from Benjamin Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies, a collection of five lullabies which the composer wrote for the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans. ‘A Cradle Song’, a setting of Blake, began with a languidly swinging bass line from Lau but the entry of the voice’s entreaty, ‘Sleep, sleep, beauty bright’, quelled the forward movement. For much of the song, the vocal line was richly expressive and exploratory. The dreaminess culminated in the beautifully quiet reprise of the opening vocal melody, the piano’s final gestures luring us into slumber. We quickly awoke, though, with the alarming admonishment which opens ‘A Charm’: ‘Quiet!’ Langford amusingly captured the exasperation of the mother whose child will not sleep, although the imploring tone of the final requests, ‘Quiet, sleep!’, suggested deeper unrest. Lau negotiated the busy piano part with accomplishment. We then returned to Ives for a flamboyant rendering of ‘The Circus Band’; Langford achieved a thrilling brightness at the top and demonstrated impressive vocal agility, while Lau did a sterling job of evoking the prancing horses and blasting trombones. As those waiting in Main Street for the arrival of the circus declare, ‘Oh! Aint it a grand and glorious noise!’

Next, the duo looked back to the art songs of the nineteenth century, beginning with Schubert’s ‘Der blinde Knabe’ (The blind boy). Initially I found Lau’s accompaniment — rippling right-hand figuration and a two-quaver staccato interjection in the left hand — a little intrusive; but, this was a rare occasion in this performance where Lau was not wonderfully supportive and sensitive, and Schubert’s writing does make considerable demands on the pianist with its rhythmic stumblings and uncertainties. Colley Cibber’s poem (translated into German by Jacob Nicolaus de Jachelutta Craigher) of childhood tragedy — in which the blind boy asks of the sighted, ‘O ye love ones, tell me some day/ What is this thing called light?’ — might lead the listener to expect gushing Victorian sentimentality. But, Schubert’s setting conveys not pathos but endurance, emphasizing the essential inner strength of the child. In the halting opening phrases, Langford created an air of wonder and mystery, while the movement to the minor key in the fourth stanza — ‘In truth I know not your delights/ And yet ’tis not my fault/ In suffering of it I’m glad/ With patience I endure’ — was haunting, but gentle and lacking self-pity. The return to the major key at the close — ‘I am as happy as a King,/ though still a poor blind boy (‘ein armer blinder Knab’) brought stillness and peace.

Two of Antonín Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs (Zigeunermelodien) followed. ‘Songs my mother taught me’ (Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat ucívala) was a highlight of the evening, Lau establishing a beguiling lilt and Langford employing a beautiful mezza voce to convey the singer’s sadness and hope. She made a good attempt at the Czech too. ‘Give a hawk a fine cage’ (Dejte klec jestrábu ze zlata ryzého) brought the sequence to a rousing, rhetorical close.

After the interval, Langford and Lau visited Mahler’s Der Knaben Wunderhorn. The vocal characterisation was strong in ‘Trost im Unglück’ (Solace in Misfortune), as Langford captured the petulant feistiness of the hussar’s paramour. In ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (Where the fair trumpet sounds) — another dialogue between a young girl and her lover, but one which intimates both erotic passion and loss — the full richness of the mezzo-soprano’s voice blossomed charismatically, in lush phrases which were focused and accurate. Lau’s figures summoned up the bugles and drums of the battleground, and these military gestures contrasted poignantly with the tenderness of the lovers’ intimated, ambiguous encounter.

In three of Poulenc’s 1948 Calligrammes (a collection of settings of Apollinaire, whose subtitle ‘Poèmes de la Paix et de la Guerre’ reveals the sufferings of war to be its subject), Langford’s French diction was less clear. But, in the brief ‘Il pleut’ she gave her voice a sheen which pierced through the piano’s ‘rain’ (the cascades match Apollinaire’s visual ‘picture’, for the typography of the poem mimics the slants of falling rain). Here, Lau once again made the difficult figuration sound effortless. ‘Aussi bien que les cigales’ (As well as the cicadas) was notable for its rhetorical bravura and effulgent energy. To conclude the vocal sequence Langford and Lau selected Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Tango’, from The History of the Thé Dansant, composed in 1994 and based on the popular dances of the 1920s. Its combination of exuberance and lyricism was a charming conclusion to the vocal items in the programme.

Closing each half of the recital, the Ducasse Trio — winners of the Concordia’s Barthel Prize — presented works for piano, clarinet and violin by Ives, Khachaturian and Bartók. Violinist Charlotte Maclet assuredly conjured different worlds, from the reserved serenity of Ives to the brashness of Bartók’s scordatura exclamations. In the latter composer’s Contrasts, Maclet’s strong tone and virtuosity communicated Bartók’s passion for the music of his native Hungary, and helped to make the challenging score persuasive and engaging. There was much fluid, agile playing from clarinettist William Duncombe in Khachaturian’s Trio and pianist Fiachra Garvey was ever responsive to his fellow musicians. It was good to have an opportunity to hear these seldom performed chamber works.

As they gathered on stage together at the end of the evening, the performers’ enjoyment and pride was evident and infectious.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Bethan Langford mezzo-soprano, Ben-San Lau piano, Ducasse Trio (Charlotte Maclet violin, William Duncombe clarinet, Fiachra Garvey piano). Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 13th April 2015.

Charles Ives: ‘Songs my mother taught me’; Herbert Howells: ‘King David’; Benjamin Britten: A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (‘A Cradle Song’, ‘A Charm’); Charles Ives: ‘The Circus Band’; Franz Schubert: ‘Der blinde Knabe’ D833; Antonín Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs (Zigeunermelodien) Op. 55 (No.4 ‘Songs my mother taught me’ (Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat ucívala), No.7 ‘Give a hawk a fine cage’ (Dejte klec jestrábu ze zlata ryzého); Charles Ives: Largo for Violin, Clarinet and Piano; Aram Khachaturian: Trio for clarinet, violin and piano; Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Trost im Unglück’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’); Francis Poulenc: Calligrammes (No.4 ‘Il pleut’, No.5 ‘La Grâce exilée’, No.6 ‘Aussi bien que les cigales’; Richard Rodney Bennett: A History of the Thé Dansant (No.3 Tango); Béla Bartók: Contrasts Sz.111.

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