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Kathryn Rudge at the Wigmore Hall
13 Feb 2017

English song: shadows and reflections

Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.

Kathryn Rudge at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Kathryn Rudge

Photo credit: Sussie Ahlberg


The dark clouds of WWI made their presence felt: this was a conflict that ended the expressive creativity of so many English poets and musicians, sending some to their deaths at Gallipoli (William Denis Browne) and others to the lingering ‘death’ of mental ill health (Ivor Gurney). It is no wonder that composers seemingly sought to ‘escape’ through art; nor that such expressive ‘retreats’ sometimes proved elusive, bitter, ironic or disenchanting.

Kathryn Rudge, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, demonstrated her ability to capture both the hope and the resignation that so many of these songs display. Always sincere and direct - although sometimes the text was less than clearly declaimed - Rudge exhibited a firm mezzo-soprano which is well-centred, secure and consistent across the register: rich at the bottom and glossy the top, but occasionally a little sturdy. James Baillieu showed why he is the heir apparent to such luminaries of the world of ‘accompanists’ (an unforgivably insufficient term!) as Graham Johnson, Malcolm Martineau, Julius Drake … even with the piano lid fully raised Baillieu never once over-powered his soloist, yet there was not a gesture that was not defined with crystalline eloquence and when he took the opportunity to indulge in powerful expressive utterance, it was always with the utmost taste and composure.

Herbert Howells’ ‘Come Sing and Dance’ opened the programme, establishing a link to the past: the text comes from folk sources, an old carol, and Rudge displayed a sure sense of line which conveyed the confidence and assurance of times past. The mezzo’s vibrato was quite wide but also controlled, and she was alert to the nuanced harmonic twists and turns. Later, Howells’ Peacock Pie - settings of Walter de la Mare - took us to more ambiguous territory. The sparse irony of ‘Tired Tim’, the humorous bite of ‘Alas, alack!’ - Baillieu’s pinching accents embodied the spluttering fat of the ‘fish that talks in the frying pan’ - and the balladeer’s fluency of ‘Mrs MacQueen’ placed de la Mare’s apparent naïve simplicity under the spotlight of war’s acerbity.

‘The dunce’ lurched with delicious asymmetry; Baillieu maintained a teasing balance between regularity and stagger in the left hand, while the right hand picked out, with ironic snatches of brilliant precision, an acidic complement to the vocal line. The accompaniment of ‘Full moon’ sparkled with flashes of celestial gleam, a delightful complement to the drowsy loops of the voice.

Ivor Gurney’s ‘Sleep’ is probably the best-known of the five songs written to Elizabethan texts that the then undergraduate penned in 1914. I loved the hint of rubato in the piano introduction - as if the singer was rousing him/herself from torpor - and Rudge’s communicative colours made the sentiments tell, though I felt that she did not always craft the arching lines with absolute fluency, breathing where I would have wished for continuity. Gurney’s ‘Most Holy Night’, written when the composer was being treated in a mental asylum, was powerfully eloquent, though at times the words were lost. A slow tempo was adopted for ‘By a bierside’ but this gave the song a poignant gravitas. The concluding episode - an effulgent expansion and release for the piano, followed by major/minor nuances, and harmonic sequences leading to final plunging gestures - was unsettlingly stirring.

Three Roger Quilter’s songs permitted a gentle English whimsy to penetrate the Wigmore Hall. ‘Go, lovely rose’ confirmed Baillieu’s delicate vocalism - the ‘playout’ was seductively tender. ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ demonstrated Rudge’s consistency across registers: ‘The fire-fly wakens’ gleamed and glistened vibrantly; and the plea, ‘waken thou with me’, was penetrating and pointed.

In William Denis Browne’s ‘To Gratiana dancing and singing’, Rudge might have employed a more flamboyant, joyous rhetoric; but the final stanza was tellingly recounted, not least because Baillieu’s intently deliberated right hand, doubling the voice, was effectively deployed against deep bass chords and ripples.

The recital concluded with Frank Bridge’s ‘Three songs with viola’ of 1903-06. Guy Pomeroy has a beautifully relaxed and characterful tone, but he still could not always project through the busy accompaniment and well-defined vocal lines of ‘Far, far from each other’ (Matthew Arnold), although he did capture the roving, improvisatory air of the viola’s explorations, as the stringed instrument wrapped itself around the vocal line, slipped below and rose again with brightness.

In ‘Where is it that our soul doth go?’ Pomeroy offered both an embodiment of the voice’s anxiety and an, albeit ambiguous, response to its dilemmas. ‘Music, when soft voices die’ saw the viola, fittingly, take a more assertive role. The strumming assurance of the final tierce de Picardie was consoling.

Claire Seymour

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), James Baillieu (piano), Guy Pomeroy (viola)

Herbert Howells: ‘Come sing and dance’; Roger Quilter: ‘Go, lovely Rose’ Op.24 No.3 . ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ Op.3 No.2, ‘Music, when soft voices die’ Op.25 No.5; William Denis Browne - ‘To Gratiana dancing and singing’; Herbert Howells - Peacock Pie; Ivor Gurney - ‘Sleep’, ‘Most Holy Night’, ‘The fields are full’, ‘By a Bierside’; Frank Bridge - ‘Three songs for voice, viola and piano.

Wigmore Hall, London; 13th February 2017.

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