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Ashley Riches and James Middleton at Wigmore Hall
22 Feb 2018

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Ashley Riches and James Middleton at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ashley Riches

Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt


The programme opened with a perennial favourite, Schubert’s ‘Die Forelle’ (The trout) and Middleton and Riches immediately made evident their concern, which was sustained throughout the recital, to communicate the narrative of their chosen songs - through motivic word-painting, vocal nuance, diversity of tone and dramatic presence. Middleton delicately conjured the slithering scales and flapping tail of the capricious fish, while Riches’ strong, forth-right projection conveyed the fisherman’s determination to land his catch.

This was beautiful and vivid characterisation. And, ‘Der Alpenjäger’ (The alpine huntsman) was similarly engaging. Riches relished, here and elsewhere, the opportunity to embody different characters and their energetic debates, aiming for comic contrast between the floating appeals of a mother who wishes her son to stay at home to tend the lambs and the insistent protests of the young adventurer who yearns to set out on his quest for the gazelle. Riches’ buoyant baritone brought to mind an image of the eager hazelnut gatherer in Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’, sallying forth ‘in the eagerness of boyish hope … Tricked out in proud disguise of cast-off weeds’! The duo exploited the way Schubert’s rhythmic structure tells the tale, culminating in the stately pronouncements of the Spirit of the Mountain who intervenes - here with a sonorous gravity worthy of Sarastro - to protect the trembling gazelle. And, alert to every expressive dimension, Riches injected a little tenderness and pathos into the god’s final plea, ‘The earth has room for all; why do you persecute my herd?’ (‘Raum für alle hat die Erde,/Was verfolgst du meine Herde?’)

Riches works hard with his texts, and - as was evident during his vibrant performance in Purcell’s King Arthur with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall recently - he is not afraid to prioritise textual meaning over beauty of line to deepen the expressive meaning, though there is plentiful lyrical mellifluousness too. I was impressed by the directness and impact of his diction in the three German lieder. But, while he certainly took care (perhaps too much?) with the enunciation in the sequence of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Gallic songs that followed, his French is less idiomatic and this did affect the vocal phrasing, as occasionally Riches’ tendency to emphasise particular syllables disrupted the evenness of the syllabic scansion that is inherent in the language and reflected in the melodic and rhythmic settings.

I think, too, that this repertory is not Riches’ natural territory; his voice is full and strong, and while he did make a good attempt to ‘lighten’ the tone, the result did not feel entirely ‘natural’. The landscape of Fauré’s ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ (The butterfly and the flower) is a world away from Schubert’s forest foraging and it took Riches a little while to settle into the new terrain, but the wry reflections of the young man troubled by the contesting attractions of his lover’s lips and the rose-coloured ladybird resting on her snow-white neck, in Saint-Saëns’ ‘La coccinelle’, were engagingly delivered, Riches swooning into romantic reverie at the parodic close. Middleton’s atmospheric accompaniment added much to the sentimental hyperbole of Massenet’ quasi-operatic ‘La mort de la cigale’ (Death of the cicada), and here Riches exercised satisfying control during the extended vocal phrases and flowed lightly through the melismas of the central section.

One wonders why the French seem to have had such a ‘thing’ for insects, for Ravel, too, included an homage to the cricket (‘Le grillon’) in his Histoires naturelle (1906). Here, Middleton’s tremulous pointillism was delicately and delightfully evocative and what was really impressive about this song was the way the duo maintained rhythmic momentum, and a beguiling narrative, despite the fragmentary vocal line and seemingly ‘static’ piano gestures. It is the birds rather than the beetles that Ravel truly celebrates though, and none more than the peacock (‘Le paon’), whose pomp and pride rang from Middleton’s introductory bars with the brightness of the feathered eyes of the bird’s train, which was itself brandished with a startling pianistic flourish at the close. Some critics have suggested that Ravel is indulging in self-portraiture, here, painting a picture of the fin de siècle artist-cum-dandy, and this performance made that reading a convincing one. I admired Riches’ memory in this song - indeed, in all of Ravel’s set of five, for the texts are lengthy and often prosaic, with subtly shifting meters. He made a good effort to make the words ‘live’ in both ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ (The kingfisher), in which Middleton’s grave tone conveyed the bird’s regal status and demeanour, and in the account, in ‘La pintade’ (The guinea-fowl), of the quarrelsome nature of a farmer’s querulous hen.

Riches’ had shown his comfort and flair in the musical theatre idiom during the LSO’s Bernstein Anniversary celebrations at the Barbican Hall, before Christmas, when he was displayed a cocksure swagger and vibrant Yankee drawl in Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. And, while this recital did not, as then, end with Riches leading the audience in a conga down Wigmore Hall’s aisles, the final item of the programme, Vernon Duke’s Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo, did give him liberty to don his Flanders-and-Swann hat, indulge his instinct for showmanship and celebrate the piquant wit of Vernon Duke’s musical embodiments of the brief portraits which form Ogden Nash’s bestiary. I have to confess that this repertoire is not really my cup of tea (I tend to the view that the poetry isn’t worth reading, let alone setting to music, but many will, for good reasons, disagree!). But, Riches rattled off the zoological roster with panache, and his poise and pronunciation were admirable. He couldn’t resist going down to the farm one more time: his encore, ‘I Bought Me A Cat’ from Copland’s Old American Songs was a noisy and nonsensical, and fittingly ‘natural’, end to a charming recital.

This recital can be heard for one month following the performance on BBC iPlayer.

Claire Seymour

Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Franz Schubert - ‘Die Forelle’ D550, ‘Die Vögel’ D691, ‘Der Alpenjäger’ D588; Fauré - ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ Op.1 No.1; Saint-Saëns - ‘La coccinelle’; Massenet - ‘La mort de la cigale’; Ravel -Histoires naturelles; Vernon Duke - Ogden Nash's Musical Zoo.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19th February 2018.

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