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Tara Erraught, James Baillieu and Ulrich Pluta at the Wigmore Hall
11 Mar 2017

Tara Erraught: mezzo and clarinet in partnership at the Wigmore Hall

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught demonstrated a relaxed, easy manner and obvious enjoyment of both the music itself and its communication to the audience during this varied Rosenblatt Series concert at the Wigmore Hall. Erraught and her musical partners for the evening - clarinettist Ulrich Pluta and pianist James Baillieu - were equally adept at capturing both the fresh lyricism of the exchanges between voice and clarinet in the concert arias of the first half of the programme and clinching precise dramatic moods and moments in the operatic arias that followed the interval.

Tara Erraught, James Baillieu and Ulrich Pluta at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Tara Erraught

Photo credit: Christian Kaufmann


Once the slight, and forgivable, tension of the opening couple of items had been banished, Erraught revealed a full, gleaming mezzo which was bright at the top, honeyed in the middle and strong and characterful at the bottom. She moved easily between and across the registers, slipping silkily through coloratura passages, soaring warmly in more expansive episodes, and nailing every leap, twist, turn and flourish that was required of her.

In the concert arias with obliggato clarinet, however, she was matched, and on occasion outshone, by Pluta. A former principal clarinettist with the Staatskapelle Dresden and guest principal with many orchestras including the Bayerische Staatsope, Pluta’s innate musicality was winningly beguiling.

The use of obbligato - usually wind - instruments to complement and converse with the voice was a common practice in the oratorios and operas of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the obbligato instrument moved from the orchestra ranks and took its place in the concert aria and it was four of the latter that were presented here.

Louis Spohr’s Sechs Deutsche Lieder Op.103 were first performed in 1838; the solo part was written for the virtuoso instrumentalist Johann Simon Hermstedt, who asked Spohr to composer the work at the request of Princess Sondershausen. Piano and clarinet painted a bucolic mood-picture at the opening of ‘Zwiegesang’ (Duet song), conjuring the sweet scents and sounds of dusk: ‘In a lilac bush sat a little bird/ in the quiet, lovely May night.’ Erraught’s German diction was precise though her diligent attention to the text resulted at times in a lack of strong character-painting. However, the revelation that ‘Von Frühlingssonne da Vöglein saß/ Von Liebeswonne das Mägdelein’ (Of spring sunshine sang the little bird,/of love’s delight sang the young girl) was winsomely conspiratorial in tone, and her mezzo blossomed beautifully with the last line, ‘Vergeß ich nimmer mein Lebelang’ (I shall never forget my whole life long). The second Op.103 song, ‘Das heimliche Lied’ (The secret song), began with a clarinet flourish - a wincing spasm of pained lament which Baillieu transformed magically at the close into a gentle vision of hope and love.

Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen played a large part in the elevation of the obbligato to the concert platform, but the composer’s disciples, including Franz Paul Lachner, were not slow to follow his example. The piano’s propulsive accompaniment at the opening of Lachner’s ‘Wach auf’ (Awaken!) were a rallying cry to live and act: ‘Was stehst du bange/ Und sinnest nach?’ (Why do you stand there/ brooding with fear?) sang Erraught, her dark lower register urgent and compelling. The second of two songs from Lacher’s Frauenliebe und Leben Op.82, ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ (Since I saw him), was similarly fervent; here, though, the rich and energised accompanying parts occasionally overwhelmed the vocal line when it fell to lower realms. The instrumentalists’ wonderfully modulated rallentando at the close was beautifully delicate.

Erraught seemed to shift up a gear in Schubert’s Der Hilt auf dem Felsen, relishing the operatic dimensions of this more substantial, and more accomplished, composition and its progression through intense emotions. She really engaged with the audience here, creating an absorbing characterisation. The tense drama of the instrumental introduction - the piano’s subtle rubato, the slightest of expressive delays on the first of the repeated chords, and a sleepy clarinet fermata - issued a challenge to the voice, to match the openness and smoothness of the clarinet’s opening melody, but Erraught equalled Pluta for mellifluous allure, evincing both power and clarity through the undulating phrases. The repeating triplets of Baillieu’s accompaniment were, as ever, judiciously weighed, and both instrumentalists were simultaneously dramatic and sensitive. The tempo of the minor-key central section of the aria, in which the shepherd reflects on his grief and loneliness, seemed quite deliberate and slow, but this only served to highlight the steady, icy flow of tears in the piano’s right hand and the quiet pain of Erraught’s gently decorated plaint, ‘Ich hier so einsam bin’ (I am so alone here). Soon, though, the exuberant final section, in which the protagonist celebrates the spring to come, chased away wintering melancholy.

In the four operatic numbers that comprised the second half of the programme, Erraught revealed the extent of her expressive range and a stalwart technique. She seemed more comfortable in this dramatic mode, more naturally accommodating her large mezzo to the intimate Wigmore Hall while hiding none of its power and palette.

Erraught captured all of Sifare’s pathos and hauteur in ‘Soffre il mio cor con pace’ (My heart endures calmly) from the adolescent Mozart’s opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, nailing, in the opening phrase, the sustained note that expresses Sifare’s forbearance and the wide leaps that convey his inner agitation. With Mitridate away fighting a war against Pompey the Great, his two sons, Farnace and Sifare battle for the love of their father’s new bride, Aspasia. She, afraid of Farnace’s passionate advances, issues a despairing appeal to Sifare and he, after agreeing to protect her, exclaims in this aria that while he can withstand a woman’s beauty, a man’s pride cannot be abided - thereby offering Mozart two opposing emotions to comply with the conventions and structure of the da capo form.

Mozart’s vocal writing is demanding: the fifteen-year-old relied more on coloratura flamboyance than the emotional mood-painting of his mature operas to capture the wild ups and downs of love. Erraught was untroubled by the wide leaps, flourishes and extensive scalic runs that traverse the full range of the voice. The sudden transitions were convincing, and the lyricism of the slow, triple time ‘b’ section offered a quiet anguish to counter the statuesque indignation of the opening section.

Adolescent ardour and self-belief of a different kind were on display in Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’ from Le nozze di Figaro, where the richness of the plummeting final phrases suggested the young page’s candidness and incipient maturity.

Erraught offered two rarely heard works by Rossini to close the programme. Rosina’s frequently cut ‘alternative’ aria, ‘Ah se è ver che in tal momento’ (Ah, if it is the truth), from Il barbiere di Siviglia -that Rossini composed for the soprano Josephine Fodor Mainvielle - was impressive for the delicacy of the coloratura, which leapt lightly and fully captured the vulnerable Rosina’s fears that Lindoro has betrayed her. The floating lyricism of ‘Ah se è ver’ was effectively balanced by the later bravura, as Rosina declares her faith in Lindoro’s innocence and rejoices in his ‘compassionate love’.

Erraught’s technical security was similarly impressive in the composer’s solo cantata Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc). The first recitative, in which the protagonist reflects on the mission before him, is followed by an aria devoted to her mother. The second part interrupts such reflections with thoughts of war and the summons of an angel of death. Erraught conveyed Joan’s extraordinary emotional capacity, from the force of the protagonist’s patriotic fervour - ‘O patria! O re! Novella un’aita verrà’ (O my country! My king! A new source of help will come) - to the lilting grace of maternal adoration. She effectively controlled and shaped the growing intensity, culminating in the proud rhetoric and majesty pride in the second part of the cantata, which was heightened by Baillieu’s characterful accompaniment.

The Wigmore Hall audience was warmly appreciative, and Erraught was keen to encore. I felt, though, that Sesto’s ‘Parto, parto’ from La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s final opera seria, might have been included as a conclusion to the ‘main programme’; a substantial work - and finely performed by Pluta and Erraught - it seemed to demand a ‘full billing’, and it would have neatly complemented the opening work. Two more short encores followed - Percy French’s ‘Long, long ago in the woods of Gornamona’ and Aaron Copland’s ‘Long time ago’ - which allowed us to appreciate the gentle sweetness of Erraught’s mezzo but which seemed unnecessary adjuncts to what was a rewarding, thoughtful and well-conceived programme.

Claire Seymour

Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano), James Baillieu (piano), Ulrich Pluta (clarinet)

Louis Spohr: ‘Zwiegesang’ Op.103 No.2, ‘Das heimliche Lied’ Op.103 No.5, ‘Wach auf’ Op.103 No.6; Franz Paul Lachner: ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’, ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ Op.82; Franz Schubert:Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D965; Mozart:Mitridate, re di Ponto K87 - ‘Soffre il mio cor con pace’, Le nozze di Figaro K492 - ‘Voi che sapete che cosa e amor’; Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - ‘Ah s'e ver’, ‘Giovanna d’Arco’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 6th March 2017.

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