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Performances

Gemma Lois Summerfield
13 Jan 2016

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gemma Lois Summerfield

 

Quite apart from the technical challenges surmounted and the diversity of musical idioms mastered, Summerfield also proved herself to be an excellent linguist, moving confidently from German to French, from English to Finnish, and back to German.

This concert was one of a series of song recitals being given by past prize-winners of the Kathleen Ferrier Award, which Summerfield won in 2015. She began with Mendelssohn, whose ‘Hexenlied’ she had performed in the Ferrier Award Final and which here closed a group of five songs by members of the Mendelssohn clan. ‘Neue Liebe’ (New Love) was a difficult song with which to begin, requiring precision and composure from the singer, who presents Heine’s pondering on the truth of the legend that a mortal who sees the elfin Queen will either find new love or die. Summerfield swooped and leapt effortlessly, and with pinpoint accuracy, conveying the protagonist’s concern that the horns and bells he hears may prove deathly, while Lepper sharply picked out the sound of pounding hooves. ‘Die Liebende schreibt’ (The beloved writes) was notable for the gentle phrasing of the vocal line, and the deep, dark colours with which Summerfield imbued the protagonist’s feelings of loneliness: ‘Enfernt von dir; entfremdet von den Meinen/ Führ ich stets die Gedanken in die Runde’ (Far from you, estranged from my family, I let my thoughts rove constantly). Lepper employed subtle rubatos while maintain a flowing accompaniment, using the bass line to provide guiding direction, particularly in the piano postlude. In ‘Winterlied’ (Winter song) and ‘Hexenlied’ (Witches’ song), Summerfield showed that she can tell a compelling tale. The former had a touching pleading quality which grew to urgency in the second stanza, as the young boy begs his mother to let him search for his sister outside in the snow and wind. The slightest of pauses after the line, ‘Der Wind ward still, die Nacht verging’, in the final verse, was typical of the thoughtful gestures which gave stature and weight to these small forms. Each verse of the strophic ‘Hexenlied’ was clearly defined; the catalogue of gothic imagery — broomsticks, goats, dragons and Beelzebub — took us to the realms of the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fanny Mendelssohn’s ‘Die Mainacht’ (May night) gave Summerfield the opportunity to display the glossiness of her gleaming soprano, which slipped smoothly through the unusual harmonies of the second verse — ‘Suche dunklere Schatten’ (Seek darker shadows); Lepper impressively negotiated the busy accompaniment, articulating the elaborate figuration clearly but never overwhelming the voice.

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In Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten airs) Summerfield showed a similarly acute sense of the spirit of the text, and an innate feeling for the evocative idiom. ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ (It is languorous rapture) showcased the soprano’s wonderfully burnished lower range, as she sank sensuously through the opening phrase; she seemed to relish the chromatic nuances and descents, particularly in the second stanza, and when the vocal line rose to its height — ‘Cela ressemble au cri doux/ Que l’herbe agitée expire …’ (It is like the sweet sound/ The ruffled grass gives out …) — her voice had a thrilling shine, full of passionate feeling. Lepper’s oscillating semiquavers delicately conjured the falling rain in ‘Il Pleure dans mon coeur’ while Summerfield remained focused during the recitative-like sighs of the middle part of the song, and as the harmony wandered through distant tonalities. In contrast, the chords which open ‘L’ombres des arbres’ were weighty and ponderous, suggesting the density and of the ‘shadows of trees’ in the misty stream. In ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Merry-go-round) Summerfield’s vivacious voice sparkled above Lepper’s tight trills and whirling arpeggios, and this gave the slowing of the tempo in the pianissimo final verse a mischievous edge — a frisson which ‘exploded’ in the playful piano postlude. The complex structure of ‘Green’, with its constantly shifting tempos, was well-controlled, and the final line — low in the voice and accompanied by tender chords — was very lulling: ‘Et que je dorme un peu puisque vous reposez’ (And let me sleep a while, since you rest). The final song of the cycle, ‘Spleen’, began enigmatically, with its fragmentary piano introduction and low, unaccompanied monotone recitation. Summerfield found a lovely veiled quality to suggest mystery in the first couplet, ‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges/ Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’ (All the roses were red, And the ivy was all black), before lifting and brightening her voice for the subsequent verses. I was impressed during these Debussy songs by how skilfully she conveyed the way that Debussy translates poetic nuance into musical expression.

After the interval, Summerfield return to the platform alone, for a performance of Jonathan Dove’s Ariel, in which she showed her theatrical instinct, deftly capturing the mercurial character of the eponymous sprite. Dove sets the three songs that Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, along with other text from the play. Prospero’s isle is, as Caliban tells us ‘full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not’, and Summerfield exploited Dove’s recreation of these haunting, beguiling sounds to the full, with impressive technical control, singing with great power and imagination. The score contrasts earthy dance-like passages with long lyrical lines, and the soprano captured this duality of idiom and personality: her Ariel was both ethereal and sensuous, defiant and pliant. The onomatopoeic devices and effects of ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ were executed with commitment, and the song’s rapid text repetitions and wide range posed no problems. Summerfield used the consonants effectively in the clanging bell mimicry of ‘I boarded the King’s ship’ — ‘Dong dadang dong’ — her voice resonating powerfully. The vocalise ‘O, O, O’ ranged from magisterial to wistful, and Ariel’s complicated relationship with his master — simultaneously rebellious and servile, insolent and indebted — was effectively conveyed in ‘All hail, great master’, a song whose large vocal leaps present their own challenges. ‘Is there more toil?’ brought renewed freshness, excitement and wonder: ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I.’ In the final lines — ‘I drink the air before me!/ I go, I go, I go./ Ssshhh. Ssshhh. Ssshhh.’ — Summerfield acted impressively with her voice. Through this demanding set of songs, she captured the strange paradoxes of the magical slave, who is at once both deeply sensual and eerily asexual.

Summerfield not only won First Prize in last year’s Ferrier Competition, but was also awarded the Song Prize for her interpretation of Sibelius, and it was good to have the opportunity to hear again her engaging interpretation of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ (The girl returned from meeting her lover), which relates the tale of the girl who, returning from an amorous assignation, must confront her angry mother. The Romantic mode of the song was enhanced by Lepper’s swelling, between-phrase interjections and swaying syncopations, as Summerfield forcefully conveyed the girl’s yearning sadness and turbulent, angry anxieties. Both ‘Vilse’ (Lost) and ‘Se’n har jag ej frågat mera (Since then I have stopped asking) intimated a burdensome weight of feeling.

The four songs of Richard Strauss’s Op.27 Lieder concluded the programme. In ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ (Rest, my soul!) Lepper’s dissonant opening chords established a mood of distance and alienation which characterised the reticent vocal line, though there were moments of illumination, as when Summerfield traced a clear arc of ‘bright sunshine’, ‘Sommerschein’. Later, the piano’s ponderous chords punctuated a vocal line which was weighed down with weariness. In contrast, ‘Cäcilie’ (Cecily) was imbued with impetuous capriciousness, and was sung by Summerfield with fluency and ease. This song ran straight on into ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ (Secret invitation), with its delightfully rippling accompaniment, leading to the final song, ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow!), the melody of which was spun with poignant reflection.

It was good to have the opportunity to hear again a young artist of such promise and potential. Summerfield will perform the role of Ginerva in Handel’s Ariodante in this year’s London Handel Festival (Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre (8-14 March) and will perform with Classical Opera in their presentation of the UK premiere of Niccolò Jommelli’s Il Vologeso at the Cadogan Hall on 28 April.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Gemma Lois Summerfield, soprano; Simon Lepper, piano.

Felix Mendelssohn: ‘Neue Liebe’, ‘Die Liebende Schreibt’, ‘Winterlied’, ‘Hexenlied’; Fanny Mendelssohn: ‘Die Mainacht’; Debussy: ‘Ariettes Oubliées’; Jonathan Dove: ‘Ariel’; Sibelius: ‘Vilse’, ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’, ‘Se'n har jag ej frågat mera’, R. Strauss: 4 Lieder Op.27.

St. John’s Smith Square, London, Sunday 10th January 2016.

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