October 2020 Archives

ETO Autumn 2020 Season Announcement: Lyric Solitude

Lyric Solitude, ETO’s artist-led season, focuses on the voice of the individual in isolation, on the power of song, and of poetry - with responses to that power in dance, image and drama. By foregrounding solo performers, ETO hope to empower the artist at a time when freelance musicians are facing huge uncertainty.

ETO will pick up where it left off at Snape Maltings, the final venue the company was able to visit on its cancelled Spring 2020 tour. ETO will then visit The Assembly Halls, Tunbridge Wells; Hackney Empire, London; and Lancaster Priory, plus more venues to be announced in the upcoming weeks.

ETO are taking every measure to keep audiences, artists and staff safe whilst on tour, and working with our venue partners to do so. Audience members are encouraged to get in touch with questions about visiting a show.


The below repertoire, divided into three separate programs, is confirmed with additional repertoire to be announced in the upcoming weeks.


A Waterbird Talk (Argento)
Singer: Julien Van Mellaerts
Pianist: Ella O'Neill
Director: Susan Bickley

In the course of an illustrated lecture on the mating habits of waterfowl, an ornithologist (baritone Julien Van Mellaerts) describes his oppressive marriage. Each song-like section of the drama describes a different species, and onto each he projects his own feelings – to the evident concern of his wife in the audience, whose bird-like coughs interrupt his lyric digressions. Light-hearted and melancholy in equal measure.

Susan Bickley, widely regarded as one of the most accomplished mezzo-sopranos of her generation, makes her directorial debut, and the pianist is Ella O’Neill. Sung in English. Adapted by Dominick Argento from the On the Harmfulness of Tobacco by Anton Chekov and The Birds of America by J. J. Audobon. A contemporary opera, premiered in 1977.

More repertoire for programme 1 to be announced shortly.


Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (Britten)
Singer: Julien Van Mellaerts
Pianist: Ella O'Neill
Director: John Savournin

The visionary poet and painter William Blake inspired many composers, none more effectively than Benjamin Britten. This cycle, drawing a blazing picture of the innocence and injustice Blake saw around him, is staged by John Savournin, with Cardiff Singer of the World 2019 finalist, Julien Van Mellaerts, accompanied by Ella O’Neill.

Romances on British Poetry (Shostakovich)
Singer: Edward Hawkins
Pianist: Sergey Rybin
Director: James Conway

Dimitri Shostakovich’s brooding, passionate settings of Robert Burns, Shakespeare and Raleigh conceal the composer’s deep feelings about life, caught as he was on the anvil of 1942, hammered by clashing totalitarian armies. Edward Hawkins (bass) is the voice of the man who awaits the reasonless midnight call of his killer, in a world in which beauty is crushed as soon as it is found. Accompanied by Sergey Rybin.

The Poet’s Echo (Britten)
Singer: Jenny Stafford
Pianist: Sergey Rybin
Director: James Conway

Written in Armenia for the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, Britten’s careful, astonishing setting of the Russian poet Pushkin are rarely performed. ‘Who hears the poet? Who is listening to my song?’ as poet and composer. Directed by James Conway, Jenny Stafford is the soloist in this haunting work, sung in the original Russian, accompanied by Sergey Rybin.

Boyhood's End (Tippett)
Singer: Thomas Elwin
Pianist: Ian Tindale
Dancer: Paul Chantry
Choreography: Rae Piper

Thomas Elwin (tenor) is the soloist in the ecstatic Boyhood’s End (1943), to which Paul Chantry and Rae Piper make response in dance.

The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (Britten)
Singer: Richard Dowling
Pianist: Ian Tindale
Movement: Bernadette Iglich 

Iglich also sets Britten’s eloquent, searing response to what he saw at the concentration camp at Belsen at the end of the war in The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Donne’s sonnets ravish and twist, and call out for love and understanding. They are sung by tenor Richard Dowling.

A Charm of Lullabies (Britten)
Singer: Katie Stevenson
Pianist: Ian Tindale
Director: James Conway

Stevenson is also the soloist in Britten’s bizarre Charm of Lullabies, composed on poems by William Blake, Robert Burns, Robert Greene, Thomas Randolph and John Phillip - maybe not the kind of thing to sing you to sleep.

The Heart's Assurance (Tippett)
Singers: Thomas Elwin
Pianist: Ian Tindale
Movement: Bernadette Iglich

Elwin is also the soloist in The Heart’s Assurance - the most remarkable and fearless setting of poetry by young men who fought and died in WW2. These poems, thrusting sensual desire into a landscape of death, finds response in movement by Bernadette Iglich.

Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Shostakovich)
Singer: Katie Stevenson
Pianist: Ian Tindale
Movement: Rahel Vonmoos

Mezzo soprano Katie Stevenson is the soloist in Shostakovich’s tribute to Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, an utterly unique voice in the maelstrom of the inter war and war years. Choreographer Rahel Vonmoos has devised a response in movement.

Eight texts on isolation were chosen by the composers, each drawing on what they had experienced during the last five months. The opera, shot on iPhone, directed by Billy Boyd Cape, weaves these eight songs into a unified viewing experience, that takes the audience on a visual journey through evolving representations of isolation. The full work is available in audio and video on Apple Music.

Zeffman conducts the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and a cast of leading opera singers including Sarah ConnollyIestyn DaviesSophie Bevan and two recent winners of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Zeffman was determined to engage composers and singers from around the world to highlight the connection between people, in spite of the shared experience of physical isolation during the global pandemic. Fifty people worked on creating Eight Songs from Isolation with those participating coming from across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia including Berlin, Budapest, Kherson, London, Meknes, Mexico City, Munich, New York, St. Petersburg, San Diego and Shanghai.

Oliver Zeffman commented:

“Crises have often been the catalyst for artists to develop not only new work, but also new ways of working. The current pandemic gripping the world has made impossible the two fundamental requirements of most art forms - the interaction of artists with each other, and between artists and audiences. Rather than trying to repurpose something written in another context, I felt it artistically imperative to commission something that is very much of and for our current situation that speaks to the shared experience we are all going through. Music is the great unifier and I wish to thank everyone who came together with such enthusiasm and commitment to create a new opera that we hope will resonate with audiences and bring people together around the world.”

Eight Songs From Isolation consists of:

  • Thomas Adès: Gyökér by Miklós Radnóti, sung in Hungarian by Katalin Károlyi with Ricardo Gallardo (marimba)
  • Nico Muhly: New-Made Tongue by Thomas Traherne, sung in English by Iestyn Davies
  • Helen Grime: Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy, sung in English by Sarah Connolly
  • Huw Watkins: How by Philip Larkin, sung in English by Toby Spence
  • Du Yun: Every Grass A Spring, with her own text co-authored Yang Nan, sung in Mandarin by Shenyang with Wu Man (Pipa) and Wu Wei (Sheng)
  • Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell for Reality by Rebecca Tamás, sung in English by Julia Bullock
  • Ilya Demutsky: I Guess the Universe is to Blame, words of Alexey Barishnikov as he held up a Russian bank at the height of lockdown, sung in Russian by Andrei Kymach
  • Julian Anderson: Le 3 mai, a letter he received during lockdown from composer Ahmed Essyad, sung in French by Sophie Bevan

Zeffman conducted the orchestra in a studio, with the composers and singers virtually ‘in the room’ to ensure that the orchestral accompaniment was a collaborative process. The singers were then filmed in or near their own homes, recording to these backing tracks using iPhone 11 Pro. Eight Songs From Isolation is the first opera recorded using iPhone.

Let Music Live

400 freelance professional musicians from all parts of the industry will be joined in support by leading musical figures including David HillRaphael WallfischEmma Johnson and Tasmin Little, to perform in Parliament Square and Centenary Square, Birmingham, shining a light on the need for targeted support for freelance musicians and all those who work in the arts and entertainment sector. They are also joined in solidarity by the Musicians' UnionThe Musicians' Answering ServiceEmily Eavis and more.

Tuesday 6 October, 12:00
Parliament Square, London
Centenary Square, Birmingham

Conducted by renowned director David Hill in Parliament Square, the freelance musicians will perform a short section of 'Mars' from Holst's The Planets before standing in silence for two minutes. The 20% of the piece that they will perform represents the maximum 20% support that freelancers receive from the government through the SEISS grant. The two-minute silence represents the 45% of musicians currently not covered by the SEISS grant (MU). The event will be Covid-safe, adhering strictly to social distancing regulations, facilitated by support from #WeMakeEvents.

Covid restrictions have disproportionately impacted the music and events industries, resulting in an almost total loss of opportunity to work. Investment is essential so that freelance musicians can continue to support the intricate network of businesses that rely on arts and events for their footfall.

The arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year directly to the UK economy (ONS), with growth in creative industries previously running at five times that of the rest of the economy. With effective short-term support, freelance musicians will continue to make a positive impact.

For every £1 directly spent on music and events, an extra £2 is generated in the wider economy (ACE), powering a network of businesses across the country. Supporting freelance musicians means supporting the wider economy.

The music sector is a world-leading asset to the UK and its highly-skilled professionals are regarded as the world's finest, in particular in recording award-winning film scores. The UK's breadth and diversity of concerts, events, festivals and gigs is globally renowned, bringing life to towns and cities and attracting over 40% of inbound tourist spend (ACE), providing inspiration and joy to everyone through work in the community, from schools to care homes.

The largely freelance workforce that makes up the music industry has not received the targeted support it needs to go forwards. According to Musicians' Union research, 70% of musicians are unable to undertake more than a quarter of their usual work. Two-thirds of musicians face severe financial hardship.

Much of the £1.57 billion government fund for culture has not reached freelancers, as this money is largely earmarked for venues and organisations, many of which remain closed or at severely reduced capacity. Self-employed freelancers also account for more than 80% of all orchestral players.

Offering support at 20% of average monthly trading profits, capped at a maximum of £1,875 over the months of November, December and January, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme grant extension announced by the Government will put much of the skilled freelance workforce out of business. 45% of musicians are currently not covered by the SEISS grant (MU).

With other European nations investing more in their creative industries through this difficult time, the U.K. risks being left behind and losing its status as a leader in the field.

Let Music Live calls on the Government:

  • to recognise that freelance musicians are an economic asset. It is essential they invest in freelancers so that they can continue to support the intricate network of businesses that rely on arts and events for their footfall.
  • for sector-specific support to reopen, including a subsidised concert ticket scheme while social distancing restrictions remain, and Government-backed insurance for live events and theatre performances.
  • for targeted support for those skilled workforces forced to remain closed by Covid restrictions, so that freelance musicians are still there to bring music to everyone when this is over. 

Galvanised by the energy and the goodwill among the musical community to want to keep music alive and perform again, violinist Jessie Murphy conceived the idea of getting together in Parliament Square, to show that "we are here and ready to work". Like so many in her sectors, all of Murphy's work this year, including tours with Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) and Sophie Ellis Bextor, had to be cancelled due to Covid. A post on Facebook asking "Anyone else in?" became a group of over 2000 within days.

On behalf of freelance musicians, violinist Jessie Murphy said:
"We want to show that our profession is viable, and valuable. Freelancing can be misunderstood, we play in the O2 one day, a small wedding the next, and a film recording session the day after. Each one of us is a small business that contributes both to the economy and the wellbeing of the country.

Horace Trubridge, Musicians' Union General Secretary, said:
"We know from the Union's recent research just how many musicians are struggling financially and at real risk of leaving music for good. In better times, our members drive a £5bn music industry with their talent. One artist's gig will create a domino effect of jobs, from lighting technicians to ticket sellers. If one musician is out of work, you can be sure many others will be affected too. We appreciate all the Government has done to support our members through the furlough and self-employment income support schemes so far, but they must not abandon musicians now. With social distancing measures still in place, venues can only sell at around 30% of usual capacity. We are calling on the Government to implement a seat-matching scheme, which would take venues' potential revenue to 60%, providing a lifeline to musicians and the wider industry. Getting musicians back to work is the priority. However, this is simply not realistic for so many of our members while social distancing remains in place. We strongly urge the Government to recognise the unique situation that our members are in, and to provide sector specific financial support for musicians."

#WeMakeEvents said:
"#WeMakeEvents is delighted that Let Music Live is lending its considerable support to the campaign. We have gained a lot of awareness through our recent activities, both with the public and the Government, particularly the Global Action Day on 30th September. We want that momentum to continue. Let Music Live is a wonderful way of garnering further support for our industry and those people and their families who are in need of help now."

Due to strict limits on numbers in Parliament Square, musicians who would like to join the event should contact letmusicliveuk@gmail.com

To create Notes From Isolation, Lewis and Laura interviewed performers about their experiences in lockdown, with the aim of bringing to life each person’s story in a bespoke song showcasing not only their artistry but also their unique humanity. The result is a series of beautiful and poignant new pieces, with each element of the creative process – text, music, piano track, vocal recording and visual material – created in isolation and brought together in a resulting video to be released online. Four of eight songs have been released thus far, and they are viewable online now via Murphy & Attridge's website and social media platforms (links below), with the next four being released across October.

Everyone participating in the project is donating their time, and each performer is nominating a charity to champion with their song. Charities supported to date include The Dumfries and Galloway Befriending Project, Help Musicians, The Pituitary Foundation, OperAffinity, The Fawcett Society and the Lebanese Red Cross.

Performers: Nicky Spence, Natalya Romaniw, Catriona Morison, Julien Van Mellaerts and Sofia Castillo (flute), Isabelle Peters, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, David Horton, Dame Felicity Lott
Pianist: Dylan Perez
Film & Audio: Jamie Hall
Music & Words: Murphy & Attridge

Lewis Murphy & Laura Attridge say -

We discovered early on in the interviews that however difficult the experiences of each performer, the conversation always turned towards moments of profound joy and hope - we wanted to honour that resilience and optimism in the face of great crisis and ongoing trauma; we therefore focused our efforts on bringing those particular moments to life in order to bring that same joy and hope to our audience members. Every piece is therefore really a note from isolation from each performer to say ‘we can get through this’.”

Lewis Murphy and Laura Attridge have quickly established themselves as one of the most exciting young creative partnerships on the opera scene today. They are particularly interested in making socially conscious work which responds directly to the modern world and asks questions of its viewers. Their ever-growing portfolio together already includes commissions from the Royal Opera House, Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne, the National Opera Studio, and Sound Festival. Lewis and Laura's latest commission is a new one-act opera for Leeds Youth Opera entitled ARC23, set to premiere in 2021.

Laura and Lewis have started their collaboration for Glyndebourne’s Young Composer-in-Residence scheme with Belongings, an impressive opera drawing its inspiration from deeply moving human experiences during the refugee crisis, a hot topic of the time and always valid in some part of the world. Belongings clearly shows how Laura and Lewis have worked closely and inspired each other. A very promising work that makes me look forward to their next projects together.”

Sebastian Schwarz, former General Director, Glyndebourne

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJvIGWqnYkbMEDlpt4H8nJA
Website: https://murphyattridge.com/portfolio/notes-from-isolation/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/murphyattridge
Instagram: @Murphy_Attridge
Twitter: @Murphy_Attridge

It was the first concert given by the male a cappella group, Chanticleer, since Covid-19 disrupted ‘normal’ life, and normal human culture and community. It was also, as music director Tim Keeler’s introduction and the post-concert Zoom-chat between VOCES8’s Barnaby Smith and the members of Chanticleer made apparent, a concert that required astonishing commitment from the singers to overcome restrictive obstacles and rules in order, quite simply, to be in the same space, take their masks off, and sing freely. Chanticleer grasped the opportunity to present newly commissioned music that should have been heard many months ago, and also to, in Keeler’s words, ‘include repertoire that reflects our commitment to engaging with these conversations in the best way we know how: through song.’

So, this was a diverse programme - a rich menu for the listener to digest in a short space of time, through a digital channel. Six countertenors in an ensemble of twelves voices? A programme juxtaposing Russian orthodoxy, Renaissance post-Tridentine majesty, the soul of the American spiritual and Stevie Wonder? But, it was a thrilling experience, and even if I was sometimes challenged to consider sounds, colours and approaches that I would normally eschew, it was unwaveringly engaging and exciting.

Chanticleer began their recital with Rachmaninov’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Otche nash’. The programme notes suggested that the ‘meditative echos [sic] culminate in a forceful and intense prayer of supplication to deliver us “from the Evil One.” It’s a cry from the depths for assurance and peace. It’s a cry we have all made at some point in the past few months.’ I have to say that during the past six months my own pleas for ‘deliverance’ have had a rather less abstract, and rather more political, target than the “Evil One”! But, I’m in absolute accord with the sentiment expressed - calm, reassurance and hope are in short supply at the moment.

Standing in a broad U-shaped formation, in an unidentified converted warehouse somewhere in California, Chanticleer metaphorically raised the roof - or at least shook the sloping skylights. The brickwork may not have had the elegance of Christopher Wren’s vaulted designs at the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, but every iota of the cathedral-like resonance was exploited by the singers. It was really interesting to hear the male voices indulge in a wide, richly oscillating vibrato: in the UK, we’re so used to that English cathedral lucidity and refinement that even groups, such as VOCES8, who venture into varied repertory and embrace diversity of style, still - in comparison to the vibrant, pulsating resonance that we heard from Chanticleer - sound rather crystalline and reserved. In fact, the quasi-palpable richness was absolutely right for the deep religiosity of Rachmaninov’s setting, which reverberated with embracing visceral power.

Other immediately apparent differences between Chanticleer and the terrific ensembles - Stilo Antico, The Sixteen, VOCES8, The Gesualdo Six, I Fagiolini - from whom we have heard during the past ten weeks, were both the ethnic diversity of the ensemble and, paradoxically, their starched formality: those white bow ties and evening tails had been primped and preened to perfection (something that Barnaby Smith wryly observed in a post-concert Zoom-chat with the group).

But, Chanticleer were concerned to channel US roots in this programme. George Walker (1922-2018) was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize (for Lilacs, in 1966). ‘O Praise the Lord’ (Psalm 117), Walker’s four-voice setting of Psalm 117 is direct and communicative, and Gerrod Pagenkopf was a striking countertenor soloist in the central lyrical episode. More strength and joy followed, in the form of Joseph H. Jennings’ arrangement of the traditional song, ‘Wondrous Love’. The group’s exploration of different sonorities that their Music Director Emeritus conjures - from focused unisons to the juxtaposition of high melodic celebrations against drone-like resonances, from homophonic sonic swells to imitative rainbows - was confident and meticulously delivered.

Then, we swerved back to the early seventeenth-century. Palestrina’s double choir motet, ‘Fratres, ego enim accepi’, which sets a text from the Offertory at Maundy Thursday, is both unusual, in that most of Palestrina’s motets are for five voices, and typical, as a characteristic representative of Roman polychoral liturgical majesty. I was struck by the operatic quality of Chanticleer’s ensemble sound: there was such a vibrant energy, which I think was driven by the bevvy of countertenors at the top, replacing the boy trebles or sopranos (often encouraged to sound like the former) that one hears in most UK vocal ensembles, in sacred or secular settings. This was terrifically muscular, positive singing (presumably transposed down a few notches?) which surged forwards with spiritual and musical conviction.

The Portuguese composer and theorist Vicente Lusitano is perhaps best known for the public dispute he had with Nicola Vicentino, during the 1550s (about improvised counterpoint and whether diatonic or mixed genera were desirable). The disputants wagered a pair of gold scudi and two ‘judges’, Bartolomé de Escobedo and Ghiselin Danckerts, both singers in the papal chapel of Julius III, were elected to declare a winner. Lusitano won the debate but ultimately lost the historical and musicological ‘argument’, for his music is little known and seldom heard. His ‘Ave, spes nostra’ was sung with treacly density and smoothness, the textural graininess of the lower tessitura showcasing both the colour of the low voices and the complex movements of the inner lines. These were flowing, rolling musical waters - with harmonic dips and darkness: a wonderful cushion of vocal sound.

Another of Jennings’ arrangements followed: the spiritual, ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’. Cortez Mitchell took the solo role, and sang from the heart, his surging vocalism supported by the shimmering hum of the collective. The sound was genuine and free, but a little at odds with the starched white collars! I was a bit doubtful about the promise that Steven Sametz’s Birds of Paradise (commissioned by Chanticleer in 2020) would turn each singer of the ensemble into a different bird to ‘tweet, flit, chirp’ and that the singers would ‘ruffle our feathers and flap our wings’, but in the event Sametz’s composition, which Chanticleer sang from memory) had a stunning visceral energy. The work’s physicality, and the lulls and rises, were hypnotic. Homophonic textures were decorated with swoops and swoons, trills and gurglings. What might have been a cacophonous excess was in fact a truly harmonious winged menagerie, to which baritone Matthew Knickman’s solo brought moments of calm.

Jean Sibelius’s Rakastava is best known in its arrangement for string orchestra. It was in fact written for a competition organized by the Helsinki University Chorus in 1894. Sibelius did not win. It’s one of the composer’s most substantial unaccompanied choral works but it’s also a composition of great intimacy, expressing yearning and nostalgia with equal erotic fervour. Once again singing from memory, Chanticleer seemed to conjure the force of many more voices than their actual number, and if the ‘Finnish’ spirit of the music was distant, then the group made the music their own. That said, bass-baritone Zachary Burgess evinced elegance in his monotone recitation - the text was clearly enunciated, the lower voices throbbed, and the upper radiance was elated - and tenor Brian Hinman was a fine soloist, sensitively shaping the repetitions and using his head voice most poignantly.

The repertoire presented was gathered into small groups of three or four works, often performed almost segue. I’m not sure that ‘Rescue’ by former Chanticleer member Matthew Alber was the ideal work to elide with Sibelius’s elegiac intensity, and I’m not really a fan of this sort of transatlantic saccharinity, but many are, and they will have enjoyed the fluidity and rhythmic strength of tenor Matthew Mazzola’s solo against the euphoric choric echoes, “Fly for a rescue”. Andrew Van Allsburg was the relaxed soloist in ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, though I felt this arrangement was not particularly successful emphasising as it did weighty waves of sound when it is melody and rhythm, not sonority, that give the song its character. Hinman’s arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)’ was more satisfying, highlighting both the rich layers of the collective sound and the beauty of the individual voices that stepped forward through the glowing texture.

The nineteenth-century American folksong, ‘Oh Shenandoah’ was a soaring, affecting encore. But, it wasn’t the last word from Live from London. In a pre-concert conversation, brothers Barnaby and Paul Smith (Artistic Director and Chief Executive of VOCES8 respectively) explained that there would be a Live from London Extra on 7th October, when the English Chamber Orchestra will perform live from Cadogan Hall, opening their 60th anniversary season with a special concert, introduced by Dame Janet Baker, in tribute to conductor and harpsichordist Raymond Leppard, who died in October 2019. (LfL season ticket holders are eligible for a discount.)

And there will be more. With a tear in his eye, Barnaby Smith reflected back over his, VOCES8’s and their fellow vocal ensembles’ experiences during the Live from London festival - an ambitious, innovative venture which has enabled singers to sing and audiences to connect with their music - but Smith also looked ahead, to Live from London - Christmas which will run from 1st December to 15th January, presenting performances by The Gabrieli Consort and Players, The Tallis Scholars, Take 6, I Fagiolini, London Adventist Chorale, Anúna, Amarcord, The Aeolians, Apollo5, and VOCES8 themselves. So, though times are bleak, there is something to look forward to after all.

Claire Seymour

Chanticleer : Tim Keeler (music director); Cortez Mitchell, Gerrod Pagenkopf, Kory Reid, Alan Reinhardt, Logan Shields, Adam Ward (countertenor); Brian Hinman, Matthew Mazzola, Andrew Van Allsburg (tenor), Andy Berry, Zachary Burgess, Matthew Knickman (baritone and bass)

Sergei Rachmaninoff - ‘Otche nash’, George Walker - ‘O Praise the Lord’ (Psalm 117), Traditional, arr. Joseph H. Jennings - ‘Wondrous Love’, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - ‘Fratres, ego enim accepi’, Vicente Lusitano - ‘Ave, spes nostra’, Traditional Spiritual, arr J.H. Jennings - ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’, Steven Sametz - ‘Birds of Paradise’ (commissioned by Chanticleer in 2020), Jean Sibelius - Rakastava, Matthew Alber arr. David Maddux - ‘Rescue’, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam arr. D. Maddux, as performed by M. Alber ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’, Stevie Wonder arr. Brian Hinman - ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)’

Recorded broadcast, from San Francisco; Saturday 3rd October 2020.

Providing an opportunity to hear Bostridge perform some of the lieder included on his recently released disc of Beethoven’s songs and folksongs alongside Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 of 1840 - settings of Eichendorff which are sometimes over-shadowed by the other cycles of Schumann’s ‘year of song’, Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben - this recital promised to hearten my soul and mind as the autumnal nights draw in and portentous gloom enshrouds us.

But, ‘streaming’ comes in diverse forms and in the event that of the autumn head-cold variety forced me to take my musical pleasures via the digital kind. Sneezing and spluttering in a mask is neither easy nor pleasant, and to avoid alarming my fellow Wigmore Hall patrons I forewent my chance to sink into the familiar comfort of a Wigmore Hall seat and donned my headphones instead, grateful that I could still be part of the ‘audience’ for this performance but also aware that what I would hear, and subsequently describe, was not what precisely that which those in the Hall itself would experience.

The concert began with three songs by Beethoven. I was surprised by the way Imogen Cooper shaped the image which opens ‘Resignation’, sustaining the terse motif through the written rests. “Lisch aus, mein Licht!”, the poet-speaker pleads, and I hear the initial rocking fall as that metaphoric light being gently snuffed. Bostridge, who sang with a calm firmness indicative of inevitability and acceptance, shaped the imagery with pointedness, enrichening his tenor and dramatically rolling the ‘r’ of “irregehet” to depict the spluttering flame, then softening to a tender head voice as the flame dissolved. The different moods of Beethoven’s four settings of Goethe’s ‘Sehnsucht’ were finely drawn, the simplicity of the varying tempi and forms allowed to speak for themselves. In ‘Ich liebe dich’, Bostridge used the strength of his lower register to convey the poet-speaker’s self-certainty, quietly retreating to re-create a remembered moment of shared distress and tears.

In ‘Auf dem Hügel’, the opening song of An die ferne Geliebte, the protagonist seemed more ‘present’ on the hillside, above the distant meadows, than in Bostridge’s recording with Sir Antonio Pappano, less lost in his solipsistic imaginings, and this served to make the nuanced heightening of his avowal, “Singen will ich, Lieder singen,/ Die dir klagen meine Pein!”, (I shall sing, sing songs/ That speak to you of my distress!), all the more touching and vulnerable. I found Cooper’s accompaniment a little heavy at the start of ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ and then a trifle uncoloured when the voice recites on a monotone, but it’s difficult to know what the listeners in the Hall heard, and, flexibly shaping the changing tempi, the duo certainly captured the restlessness of the protagonist’s longings.

The piano’s racing triplets in ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ were wonderfully crystalline though, sparkling like the glinting brook and as light as the airy vaults of heaven wherein the poet-speaker imagines his image will appear to his beloved. Bostridge varied his vocal colour to convey first hopefulness, then intensity of suffering and finally earnestness as he pleaded with the winds, sun and brook to reveal to the distant beloved his pain and his tears, which are never-ending - unlike the written repetition, “ohne Zahl”, which Bostridge did not sustain into the next song. The piano’s syncopated animation and tight trills conveyed the easeful delusion of the confidence that the protagonist draws from the natural world, in ‘Es kehret der Maien’, but Bostridge increasingly suffused the vocal line with energy and drama, pushing forwards to the honest admission, “Nu ich kann nicht ziehen von hinnen” (I alone cannot move on), which was enunciated with bitterness, and closed in frenetic despair. With ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’, the circle was closed and though there was a lethargic weight in the image of the fading sun’s rays, and vulnerability in the yearning, it was with a desperate urgency that the cycle closed, as if by sheer force of will music could reconnect two hearts.

If narrative and musical ‘continuity’ characterise An die ferne Geliebte, then Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39, with its diverse poetic sources and personas, offers no such coherence - though that hasn’t stopped commentators from seeking and purporting to find in these twelve songs a consistent emotional trajectory, one that journeys from the despairing alienation of the ‘In der Fremde’ to the perceived fulfilment of ‘Frühlingsnacht’.

Bostridge and Cooper did not seem to seek to impose order and logic on Eichendorff’s phantasmagoric imagery and enigmatic twists, emphasising instead the hallucinatory, quasi-improvisational quality of Schumann’s settings which is conjured by harmonic ambiguities and introspective motivic echoes. That’s not to suggest that the sequence lacked shape or persuasiveness. Cooper’s controlled, pure accompaniments perfectly complemented Bostridge’s characteristically immersive and discerning engagement with Eichendorff’s strange worlds and disorientating time-shifts. His diction ever immaculate, as Bostridge lived the unidentified protagonists’ experiences he drew the listener with him into the moonlit forests and murmuring woods, with their lonely nightingales, silent castles, glittering stars, white and red roses, and mysterious enchantresses - the shuddering trees, dungeon cells and weeping brides casting a patina of menace and unease.

The freedom of the piano’s rolling, low arpeggios captured the inner unrest of the protagonist of ‘In der Fremde’ (In a foreign land) which is driven the paradoxical tension between his desire for and fear of eternal rest, “Wie bald, ach wie bald kommt die stille Zeit,/ Da ruhe ich auch” (How soon, ah! how soon till that quiet time/ When I too shall rest). This tension was enhanced by Bostridge’s darkening nuance, a slight shiver vivifying the repeated final image, “und keiner kennt mich mehr hier” (and nobody here remembers me anymore). The smoothly extending vocal phrases seemed to embody that glance into an unknowable future. If the sentiments of ‘Intermezzo’ seem more consoling, then the piano’s tugging syncopations seemed to threaten the image of the beloved held deep within the poet-speaker’s heart.

The inscrutability of the conversation with the wondrously fair bride riding her steed through the forest, in ‘Waldesgespräch’, was evoked by the dreamy gentleness of Bostridge’s delivery of the Lorelei’s grief, following the dark strength of the young man’s ebullient exclamations. The spitting anger which propelled her final warning and prophecy, “Es ist schon spät, es ist schon kalt,/ Kommst nimmermehr aus diesem Wald!” (It It is already late, already cold,/ You shall never leave this forest again!), was a reminder of the perils within the enchantress’s forest. Indeed, the slow restraint of the final section of ‘Die Stille’, which repeats the opening profession of happiness, seemed to belie the protagonist’s blissful self-belief.

‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) was beautifully expressive. Cooper’s celestial glimmer sparkled while the slow tempo again created an expansiveness suggesting the silver spread of the moonbeam over the earth. Bostridge used his head voice tenderly, to contrast the whispers of the forest with the strength and clarity of the stars in the night sky. In the piano postlude, Cooper gently resolved the open-ended vocal line, suggesting that the outspread soul might indeed have reached its imagined ‘home’, but the incessant rustling oscillations and Bostridge’s twisting distortion of the vocal rises in ‘Schöne Fremde’ (In a beautiful foreign land) seemed to deny the promise of rapture to come.

‘Auf einer Burg’ (In a castle) was a masterful union of poetry and voice. With deathly languor Bostridge introduced us to the ancient knight, driving with pained intensity towards the image of the centuries-old chevalier in his silent cell, enhancing Schumann’s rhetoric by turning the extended musical phrase into a piercing, slanting sneer, “oben in der stillen Klause.”, and thereby emphasising the temporal disorientation of the poem. Withdrawing to a shivering whisper to describe the forest birds’ lonely songs, the tenor then blanched his voice of tone and colour to depict with terrible irony the merry music of a wedding party on the sunlit Rhine, beside which the bride weeps. Bending forward, peering threateningly, Bostridge delivered the final line from the corner of his mouth, spitting out the final consonant with startling ferocity: “und die schone Braut, die weinet.”

The sparse urgency of ‘In der Fremde’ conveyed the poet-speaker’s bewilderment, as Bostridge twisted and squirmed across the Wigmore Hall platform, the song’s energy dissipating with the final recollection of the beloved’s death, “so lange tot” (so long ago), and collapsing into Cooper’s dark, exhausted chordal conclusion. The less dramatic delivery and sustained phrasing of ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness) aptly captured the ‘deep sorrow’ at the heart of the song, while ‘Zwielicht’ was beautifully lyrical, diminishing to a whispered but pointed image of the voices of distant hunters that ‘to and fro’ through the forest, “Stimmen hin und wieder wandern.” Bostridge employed a fraught, tense quasi-Sprechgesang for the final warning, “Hüte dich, sei wach und munter!” (Be wary, watchful, on your guard!). The softening of the final phrase of ‘Im Walde’ - “Und mich schauert’s im Herzensgrunde” (And deep in my heart I quiver with fear.) - drew the listener within the consuming blackness of the forest, and if the entire natural world - nightingales, moon and stars - seems to confirm the protagonist’s consoling conviction, “Sie ist Deine, sie ist Dein!”, then the pressing piano triplets seemed designed to shore up his self-belief rather than complement his joy. After all, the cycle closes with the young man alone, in darkness, in a ‘dreaming forest’.

In their encore, Bostridge and Cooper retreated from the unknown and infinite, returning to more mundane matters, with a vocally and pianistically visceral portrait of the suffering inflicted upon the lords and ladies of the court by the King’s debonair flea, in Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Song of the Flea’. A different type of fantasy, but no less magical.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Imogen Cooper (piano)

Beethoven - ‘Resignation’ WoO.149, ‘Sehnsucht’ WoO.134, ‘Ich liebe dich’ ( Zärtliche Liebe) WoO.123, An die ferne Geliebte Op.98; Schumann - Liederkreis Op.39

Streamed live from Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 30th September 2020.

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