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Jamie Barton’s Wigmore Hall debut
24 Oct 2016

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Jamie Barton


But, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Prefaced by Baillieu’s grandiose and statuesque introduction, Barton launched bravely into the first song, ‘Cuando tan hermosa os miro’ (When I gaze on thy great beauty) from Joaquín Turina’s Homenaje a Lope de Vega Op.90; and, the first phrase was gorgeously rapturous of tone and supremely floated, yet also wayward with regard to pitch. Perhaps it was nerves, but the note just drifted out of control. But, it didn’t really matter; Barton had such an instinct sense of the song’s drama and sensuality that her vocal allure carried the day. The trio of songs which form Turina’s homage to one of Spain’s truly great literary figures are surely among the composer’s best work; and, if there was some uncharacteristic unsteadiness at the start, there was also considerable nobility.

The subsequent song ‘Si con mis deseos’ (If by my desires) was more intimate, however, the change of mood signalled by Baillieu’s quiet, murmuring introduction. Lack of familiarity with the Hall’s dimensions and acoustic was an issue here, though; reflecting that ‘Y mis dulces emploes/ Celebrara Sevilla’ (my sweet employments would be celebrated by Seville), Barton’s mezzo bloomed to operatic dimensions - but the Wigmore Hall is not the Met, nor the Coliseum. In contrast, the delicacy of the conclusion, with its imagery of turtle doves and bridal beds was beguiling, but again the wide vibrato led the pitch astray. The final song of the trilogy, ‘Al val de Fuente Ovenuja’ (Into the vale of Fuente Ovejuna), was notable for the narrative fluency which Baillieu created. Barton imbued these songs with smokiness and sensuality but drama was not always equalled by secure vocal discipline.

It was a different story in the sequence of songs by Johannes Brahms. Barton made her Proms debut in 2015 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Marin Alsop in Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a performance of great focus and dignity which confirmed her status - suggested by her performance at the Cardiff competition - as an important interpreter of this composer’s music. The beauty of the phrasing was remarkable, and was complemented in ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) by Baillieu’s initial lightness of touch and subsequent depth of sentiment. ‘Meine Liebe is grün’ (My love’s as green as the lilac bush) had a compelling rhythmic motion; ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ (Motionless mild air) was trancelike and transparent - Barton withholding her mezzo to a mere whisper, but releasing some warmth mid-song to question, ‘Sollten nicht auch deine Brust/ Sehnlichere Wünsche heben?’ (Should not your breast too heave with more passionate longing).

It was Antonín Dvořák’s Op.55 Gypsy Songs which finally released the dusky voluptuousness so beloved of Barton’s mezzo; each phrase was invigorated by colour and shade. Moreover, Barton’s ability to switch between emotional registers, and vocal styles, while still retaining the coherence of the sequence was evident. Several of the songs confirmed the power and richness of Barton’s lower register, and the idiomatic Czech pronunciation (as far as I am qualified to judge!) was impressive. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Barton sang in five languages in this recital: Spanish, German, Czech, English and Finnish.

The first song, ‘My songs rings with love to me again’ was notable for the relaxed interplay of voice and piano. The anxious cry ‘Aj!’ was the springboard for the passionate song of death which followed. ‘A les je tichý kolem kol’ (And all the wood is silent all around) was one of the highpoints of the recital; Baillieu’s falling arpeggios dripped with aching languor and there was a veiled quality to both the vocal line and the accompaniment that, while injected with greater definition as the song progressed, suggested a world beyond. In contrast, in the familiar ‘When my old mother taught me to sing’ Barton’s mezzo soared ecstatically but the slow tempo tempered the rapture with yearning. The final three songs of the sequence danced with theatricality.

After the interval we roved into less familiar territory, but Barton’s confidence in conveying the musical and narrative threads of the Charles Ives’ songs presented made this listener feel entirely at home. Commenting on her Cardiff programme, Barton has explained her inclusion of Ives’ work, including ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’: “I very, very pointedly, desperately wanted to do an American composer because I was representing the U.S. So I built a set around that.” There was a sort of intellectual distance to the first Ives’ song, ‘The Things Our Fathers Loved’, but this was refreshing after the subjective passion of the Brahms and Dvořák songs heard before. Ives’ setting of Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’ (1920) drifting wistfully, but I’m not sure that the allusive parodic impact of Ives’ quotation of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune - with the lines ‘Nature there or Earth or such./ And clever modern men have seen/ A Faun a-peeping through the green’ -really registered.

‘Immortality’ built to a fearful and aggressive climax; the piano’s syncopated freedoms in the aforementioned ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ were beguiling and Baillieu summoned an artist’s palette at the close. Indeed, the unassuming Baillieu’s contribution to the emotional and communicative impact of this recital should not be overlooked: especially given that Barton told us that her accompanist had spent much of the previous day in hospital - something to do with ‘a walnut’ was her explanation!

‘The Cage’ stemmed from a visit Charles Ives made with several friends to the Central Park Zoo, where they saw a leopard pacing restlessly back and forth in its cage. Reading the text I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ two poems, ‘The Jaguar’ and ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’, and although Ives’ song is much more epigrammic than Hughes’ poetry I was surprised that the audience seemed to find this song funny rather than sharing my disquiet at its uncanny claustrophobia. ‘Old Home Day’ provided a folksy playout, albeit it one tinged with tempering nostalgia.

Six songs by Sibelius closed the programme, and enabled us to enjoy the glossy voluptuous of Barton’s mezzo. There was pointed attentiveness to the text: a steeliness in ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black roses) when the rancour and pain instigated by the roses thorns are alluded too; an enriching of the tone and wonderfully profound registral descent with the reference to the ‘mournful lay’ at the close of ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Sigh, rushes, sigh). ‘Flickan kom ifråsin älskings möte (The girl came from her lover’s tryst) was a veritable operatic drama of Verdian proportions.

This recital was supported by the American Friends of Wigmore Hall and there was a large partisan presence in the Hall who delighted in Barton’s encores, ‘Never Never Land’ from Peter Pan, and Ernest Charles’s ‘When I Have Sung My Songs’. She held the audience in the palm of her hands; playful but pert, when challenged by an audience member to sing Eboli’s Act 4 aria ‘O don fatale’ from Verdi’s Don Carlos for her second encore, Barton’s rejoinder was ‘You sing Eboli!’ Barton was awarded Best Young Singer at the International Opera Awards in 2014; this performance suggested that her natural home is the opera house rather than the recital hall. How long will it be before Barton conquers triumphantly not just Cardiff but the London, and European, opera stage?

Claire Seymour

Jamie Barton - mezzo-soprano, James Baillieu - piano

Joaquín Turina: Homenaje a Lope de Vega Op.90, Johannes Brahms: ‘Ständchen’ Op.106 No.1, ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ Op.63 No.5, ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ Op.57 No.8, ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ Op.43 No.1; Antonín Dvořák Gypsy Songs Op.55; Charles Ives ‘The things our fathers loved’, ‘Grantchester’, ‘Immortality’, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’, ‘The Cage’, ‘Old Home Day’; Jean Sibelius: ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black rose) Op.36 No.1, ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reed, reed, rustle) Op.36 No.4, ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ Op.37 No.5, Marssnön Op.36 No.5, ‘Var det en dröm?’ Op.37 No.4

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 23rd October 2016.

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