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Lucy Crowe [Photo © Marco Borgreve]
05 Nov 2015

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lucy Crowe [Photo © Marco Borgreve]


Continuing the series’ intention to place the composer’s little-known songs alongside his most acclaimed and familiar works, the performers also offered another juxtaposition within the work of art-song: Schubert’s uncommon sensitivity to the poetic texts of his lieder is familiar, though never taken for granted, but here Crowe and her musical partners allowed us to consider, and compare, Claude Debussy’s finely crafted musical responses to the French language and poetic sensibility.

The first line of the opening song, ‘An den Mond’ (Hölty, To the moon), seemed apposite, as Crowe extended her own ‘silvery gleam’ across the Wigmore Hall, here and throughout the recital, bathing the audience in a radiant auditory lustre. All the musical elements were employed to convey meaning: the slow tread of the third stanza introduced a melancholy quality as the protagonist speaks of his desire to ‘lay a wreath on every meadow’ (‘Und einen Kranz uaf jeden Anger streue’); the long silent pause at the end of the verse suggested the retreat of the moon which will veil itself once more in the final verse, a retreat embodied too by the delicate weight of the vocal line and Martineau’s withdrawing accompaniment. Crowe did not always use the text, though, as much as I would have liked. In a recent reflection on art-song, I wrote that ‘audiences have to work hard to understand and enjoy a song: they have to listen intently to a text, perhaps in a language not their own, and can’t just sit back and let the music ‘wash over’ them. There’s nowhere to hide in a small venue, and they can feel as much a part of the performance as the singer. It can be difficult too, even for regular lieder attendees, to both follow a text, especially a translation, and simultaneously listen in a sustained way. The processes of listening can get in the way of the ‘experience’ of the song. But, the rewards for trying are immense …’ And, I felt here that during this sequence of German songs at times sheer beauty of tone and elegance of delivery took priority over the textual narrative and sounds.

That said, there were many exquisite moments. The extreme delicacy of the appeal, ‘Sinke, liebe Sonne, sinke!’ (Sink, dearest sun, sink), at the opening of ‘An die Sonne’ (von Baumberg) was magical (though the mood was sadly marred by the audience coughing and spluttering which repeatedly intruded throughout the performance). The poet-speaker’s avowal that the vision of Mary has caused the tumult of the world to vanish like a dream, rose to a transcendent suspended peak in ‘Marie’ (Novalis), swelling and declining with supreme grace and control. ‘Lob der Tränen’ (von Schlegel, In praise of tears) was wonderfully mellifluous, the gently drooping vocal phrases introduced by eloquently aspiring melodic motifs above inconspicuous triplet quavers in the left hand. Crowe suggested a coy delicacy with the image of ‘sipping kissing from fresh lips’ (‘Frischer Lippen/ Küsse nippen’), and the ebbs and flows of Martineau’s piano postlude were equally subtle in inference.

As ever, Martineau was a consummate accompanist. And, there was strong communication between the duo, as in the middle verse of ‘Nachtviolen’ (Mayrhofer, Dame’s violets) — a song in which voice and piano are in almost constant rhythmic synchronicity — where the tempo moved forward in the middle stanza which depicts life and brightness. Martineau demonstrated great responsiveness, and varied colours and inflections, in ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (Rückert, You are repose). In ‘Ellens Gesang III’ (Scott, trans. Adam Storck, Ellen’s song III) Crowe was joined by harpist Lucy Wakeford, reminding us that in Scott’s The Lady of the Lake when Roderick Dhu leads his men in rebellion against King James, his march is momentarily halted when he hears the distant song of Ellen Douglas, the Lady of the Lake, offering a prayer to the Virgin Mary, accompanied by the harpist Allan-bane. The timbre was atmospheric and the composed serenity of Wakeford’s playing suggested a mysterious and captivating suspension of time.

Crowe seemed more in her natural element in the second half of the recital, when she presented songs by Debussy, singing with restraint and refinement, and creating a compelling intimacy. Her enunciation of the French texts was more convincing, perhaps because there is a softer emphasis on the consonants, and she was wonderfully attuned to the melodic lyricism of Debussy’s vocal phrases, colouring the lines with a light vibrato.

The Chinese pastoral scene depicted in ‘Rondel Chinois’ (Marius Dillard, Chinese rondel) was given an exotic tinge by the long, ornate, high-lying vocalise which opens the song and the silky trills which decorated the vocal description of ‘le lac bored d’azalée/ De nénuphar et de bambou’ (the lake bordered with azaleas, waterlilies and bamboo), and complemented by the rich range of colours within Martineau’s accompaniment. The rhythm and meter of the song is less languid than is sometimes the case with the French composer’s songs, and the irregularity — with passages gaining momentum, then waning — enhanced further the sense of ‘strangeness’. ‘Jane’ (Leconte de Lisle), which tells of the poet’s submission to a pair of beautiful eyes — ‘Je pâlis et tombe en langueur:/ Deux beaux yeux m’ont brisé le coeur’ — was more tender and unassuming, and Crowe shaped the long, high melodic passages which skill and control. The piano’s lower lines imbued ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (de Lisle, The girls with flaxen hair) with a rich warmth that contrasted with the directness and clarity of the singer’s statement: ‘L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,/ Avec l’alouette a chanté.’ (Love, with the clear sun of summertime, has sung with the lark.) In this song, and in ‘Flot, palmes et sables’ (Armand, Renaud, Waves, palms, sands), Crowe spun gloriously silver threads; in the latter, the tumbling cascades depicting the showers of blessings which fall in the palm grove were thrilling. In ‘Les papillons’ (The butterflies), too, the crystalline, concentrated sweetness of the soprano’s upper register was enchanting, and drew attention to the syllabic setting of the text, especially as the vocal line was sensitively doubled in the piano left hand. Here, it was Martineau’s turn to effect light-fingered, restive tumbles, breezing through the right-hand arppegiated figuration.

There was a great range of mood and motion within these Debussy songs. There was wit and insouciance: the faster tempo of the second verse of ‘Séguidille’ (Théophile Gautier, Seguidilla) was charmingly initiated by Martineau’s chromatic slidings, and the showy trills and roulades were exuberant. ‘Coquetterie posthume’ (Posthumous coquetry) was urgent and impassioned, reflecting Gautier’s potent mix of sacred and sensual love, and the imagery which blends love and death; Crowe was untroubled by the extensive range and extraordinarily large leaps of the song, which were dramatic and arresting. The octave grace note which opens ‘Mandoline’ (Paul Verlaine, Mandolin) signalled the sprightliness and excitability of the song; Martineau’s dissonant ‘strumming’ formed an volatile bed for the vocal lines and the slippery harmonic progressions produced dips and sways which culminated in the ‘la la’ farewell of the courtier’s light-hearted serenade. So often during the recital it was Crowe’s glistening top range that seduced, but in ‘En sourdine’ (Verlaine, Muted), she found a mysterious darkness at the bottom, particularly in the song’s closing lines: ‘Voix de notre désespoir,/ Le rossignol chantera’ (Voice of our despair, the nightingale shall sing). Indeed, one of the highpoints of the evening, ‘Rondeau’ (Alfred de Masset) demonstrated Crowe’s vocal focus and strength across the range; here, too, she used the text dramatically, working hard to communicate clearly through the busy piano part.

This concert was persuasive evidence of the rightness and necessity of the Hall’s commitment to art-song: evidence that the fusion of poetry and music, when performed with such sympathetic artistry, results in potency and poignancy in equal measure.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Lucy Crowe, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano; Lucy Wakeford, harp. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 31st October 2015.

Schubert: ‘An den Mond’, ‘Heidenröslein’, ‘An die Sonne’, ‘Iphegenia’, ‘Lob der Tränen’, ‘Marie’, ‘Der Fluss’, ‘Nachtviolen’, ‘Du bist di Ruh’, ‘Ellens Gesang III’, ‘Die Männer sind méchant!’

Debussy: ‘Rondel chinois’, ‘Jane’, ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’, ‘Rondeau’, ‘Flot, palmes et sables’, ‘Les papillons’, Séguidille, ‘Coquetterie posthume’, ‘Tragédie’, ‘Mandoline’, ‘En sourdine’.

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