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Reviews

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A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

Lucy Crowe (soprano) and Joseph Middleton (piano): BBC Radio 3 lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lucy Crowe

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

Where else to start but with Henry Purcell, as realised by Benjamin Britten. ‘Lord, what is man?’, one of Purcell’s divine hymns, setting Bishop William Fuller’s text and published in the second volume of the Harmonia Sacra in 1693, poses quite a weighty question for a lunchtime recital, and Middleton embraced its rhetorical power, issuing a sterling call-to-arms with a stabbing mordant deep from the darkness of the piano’s bass. Though her soprano has developed real weight and impact, Crowe could not quite match the incision of the drama that Britten shapes within the accompaniment’s flourishes, jangles and sudden gruff outbursts. A little challenged to find colour when the vocal line swooned low, Crowe did project the recitative-like line cleanly and with feeling, but what was missing was a symbiosis between sound and sense - at times I struggled to follow what the soprano was singing about even though I had the text before me. There was, however, a convincing progression through the tripping dance, ‘O for a quill drawn from your wing’, towards the concluding ‘Hallelujah’ in which Crowe flew brightly through the melismatic runs above the piano’s stamping praise.

I’d have liked a less emphatic ground bass in ‘O solitude’, though, and while Crowe’s soprano retains its beguiling purity of tone and crystalline sparkle, I did not find her phrasing consistently convincing. The singer-protagonist’s wonder at the trees, as fresh and green as ‘when their beauties first were seen’, rose with ethereal elation supported by Middleton’s delicate decorations, but in the subsequent reflection on the mountains whose ‘hard fate makes then endure/Such woes as only death can cure’, some unexpected dynamic fluctuations disrupted the indissolubility of the musical and semantic articulation of the text. Little of the theatre music or sacred music of John Weldon (1676-1736) is well-known, excepting the concluding work of Crowe and Middleton’s seventeenth-century triptych: the ‘Alleluia’ found in one source of Weldon’s anthem O Lord, rebuke me not, the latter’s renown being a consequence of its misattribution to Purcell and Britten’s subsequent realisation. Middleton found nuance and sensitivity in the piano’s engagement with the repetitive vocal phrases, and the latter were agilely negotiated by Crowe.

Over the rim of the moon (1918) by Britten’s contemporary Michael Head followed. The high piano chords which introduce ‘The ships of Arcady’ had a lovely swing, both gentle and propulsive like the ebb and flow of the moon-tugged tide, and Middleton conjured a Debussyian sea-scape of rippling wavelets. Crowe’s unmannered directness communicated strongly though a little more give and take would have drawn us in still further. In Francis Ledwidge’s final stanza, when the poet-narrator dreams of Arcady as he looks across the waves and pauses, alone, drifting slowly into reverie as he stares through the ‘misty filigree’, there is time in the music for lingering, but such opportunities for poetic reverie felt at little rushed at times. However, the soprano spanned the arching lines persuasively, both here and in the subsequent song, ‘Beloved’, where the melody often ranges high and low within a single phrase. Middleton’s octave doublings deepened the Romantic intensity of this brief but passionate ode to music, nature and love. In his introduction to Songs of the Field (1916), Lord Dunsany affectionately nicknamed Ledwidge, ‘the poet of the blackbird’, because of the frequency with which he returned to the bird’s artless song and the simple forms and language with which he represented its beauty. Crowe confirmed the aptness of this phrase through the sweet simplicity of manner and melody in ‘A blackbird singing’, though it was a pity that Ledwidge’s relaxed rhymes were again often indistinguishable. ‘Nocturne’ was an unsettling expression of the poet’s grief for his homeland which captured the melodic melancholy of Georgian wistfulness.

Head was the composer of more than 100 songs and, apart from a few well-known songs, we do not hear enough of them in the concert hall. The same might be said of John Ireland whose vocal compositions stand at the heart of his output and which were described by the scholar William Mann as ‘perhaps the most important between Purcell and Britten’; so, it was good to have five of Ireland’s songs at the centre of this programme - and, indeed, they inspired wonderfully communicative expression from Crowe and Middleton. The duo captured the philosophical depths and mysteries of Aldous Huxley’s poem, ‘The trellis’, in the timelessness of the piano’s initial quiet rocking which blossomed so richly, and in the searching lyricism of the vocal melodies which Crowe brought to a ravishing close, suggestive of the secret transfiguration of a poet enveloped by the ecstasy of love: ‘None but the flow’rs have seen/ Our white caresses/ Flow’rs and the bright-eyed birds.’ ‘My true love hath my heart’ rippled with sensuousness, and the performers communicated the spontaneity that Ireland evokes, as feelings well up and overspill. In contrast, they revealed the heart-ache that lies beneath the sparse economy of the composer’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, creating a deep, quiet anguish from such simple means. The flowing naturalness of ‘If there were dreams to sell’ conveyed a gentler fatalism, but ‘Earth’s Call’ brought a concluding flood of sensuous, even dangerous, emotions. The piano writing here is tremendous, and Middleton relished the musical narrative, truly conjuring ‘every natural sound’.

The three settings from William Walton’s Façade that closed the recital programme did not seem Crowe’s natural territory, not least because Edith Sitwell did not merely provide Walton with his texts, but also influenced his musical setting, the rhythms of which were shaped by her own recitation of the poems which the composer notated. In Laughter in the Next Room (1948), Sitwell’s brother, Osbert, described the creative process: ‘I remember very well the rather long sessions, lasting for two or three hours, which my sister and the composer used to have, when together they read the words, she, going over them again and again, while he marked and accented them for his own guidance, to show where the precise stress and emphasis fell, the exact inflection or deflection.’ Crowe’s diction did not really do justice to such meticulous collaboration and the songs’ linguistic acrobatics, but she coped very well with the challenging oddities and angularities of Walton’s intonations and inflections. The three songs selected, ‘Daphne’, ‘Through Gilded Trellises’ and ‘Old Sir Faulk’, are all based on popular song - English, Spanish and American, respectively. Middleton’s accompaniment wriggled and writhed with Hispanic flair and Crowe blanched her tone effectively at the close of ‘Through Gilded Trellises’: ‘Ladies, Time dies!’ But, one felt, though, that the soprano needed to throw her innate poise and composure to the wind, in order to release the extravagance, eccentricity and sheer mad gaiety of Walton’s and Sitwell’s cryptic archness.

Crowe’s encores found her back on more comfortable and familiar ground. After an unaccompanied and beautifully elegiac performance of the Irish folk-song ‘She Moves through the Fair’, the soprano was joined by Middleton to take us ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, as set by Britten, bringing the recital back to its beginnings. The two songs coloured this lunchtime presentation of glorious English song with a lovely Celtic tint.

Claire Seymour

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Purcell - ‘Lord, what is man?’ (realised by Benjamin Britten), ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’ (realised by Benjamin Britten); John Weldon - ‘Alleluia’ (realised by Benjamin Britten); Michael Head - Over the rim of the moon; Ireland - ‘The trellis’, ‘My true love hath my heart’, ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, ‘If there were dreams to sell’, ‘Earth's call’; Walton - three settings from Fa çade (‘Daphne’, ‘Through gilded trellises’, ‘Old Sir Faulk’)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24th September 2018

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