Kate Royal at Wigmore Hall

The stimulating programme
presented on 7 May, a sequence of 25 songs by Schumann and Brahms devised by
the pianist, Graham Johnson, certainly established a cerebral, even
‘spiritual’ mood — ‘serious’ music-making indeed.
Regrettably, in the event Johnson was indisposed but, while it took him a
little time to become accustomed to the Wigmore Hall acoustic, Christopher
Glynn was in no way a ‘second-best’ replacement. His innate empathy
with this repertoire was immediately apparent, and his alert responsiveness to
the nuances of the texts was sustained throughout the performance.

As the 2004 winner of both the Kathleen Ferrier and John Christie awards,
photogenic and market-friendly, 30-year-old Royal has caught the discerning
listening public’s ear and eye during the past five years, with acclaimed
performances at Covent Garden, English National Opera and Glyndebourne. And
yet, while the warm beauty of Royal’s tone and the serious, focused
application of an impressive musical intellect were much in evidence during
this recital, the end result, while technically skilful and at times
emotionally touching, was rather ‘underwhelming’.

On this occasion Royal seemed to take a long time to get into her stride;
perhaps this is new repertoire which she has not fully mastered emotionally or
dramatically. The opening fours songs by Schumann, selected from his Op.107
set, certainly demonstrated the dark creaminess of the lower range of
Royal’s voice, and on the whole the rendering was musically accurate
(excepting some wobbles of intonation during dynamic crescendos or peaks); but
Royal did not fully convey the full expressive range of the texts.

There is much turbulence in these songs of sadness and loss, which were
composed in 1851 – a time when Schumann’s health was deteriorating as the
pressures on the newly appointed municipal director of music in D¸sseldorf
accumulated. The composer’s own psychological instability and subsequent
suicide are foreshadowed and embodied; in ‘Herzeleid’, downwards
spiralling semiquavers evoke the insanity and death of Ophelia, while the
unrequited passion and emotional distress of an unappreciated, overlooked
servant girl is conveyed by the dark, descending bass line in ‘Die
Fensterscheiber’. Unfortunately, at the start of the recital Royal was
rather overpowered by the accompaniment; perhaps she was insufficiently warmed
up, but she seemed to lack genuine engagement with these mini-dramas. Glynn
tenderly conjured the escalating grief of ‘Die Spinnerin’ and the
unsentimental loneliness of ‘Im Wald’, but it was not until
‘Abendlied’ — in which the poet, Kinkel, pleas from his
prison cell for a cessation of human fear and misery – that Royal fully
realised the despair and anguish in Schumann’s melodic and harmonic
gestures. Here, the duo effectively controlled the structure of the song,
creating momentum and continuity.

One weakness of the performance was Royal’s diction; consonants were
shabbily neglected and there was no real evidence of insight into the texts
despite the soprano’s obvious musical intelligence; at times the result
was a limited emotional range and a detachment from the emotional core of these
lieder. Neither character nor dramatic situation were convincingly conveyed in
the Brahms lieder – ‘Liebestreu’, ‘Im der Fremde’,
‘Lied’ (Op.3 Nos.1,5 and 6), ‘Parole’,
‘Ankl‰nge’ (Op.7 Nos.2 and 3) — which concluded the first
half; indeed, despite the apparent ease with which Royal surmounted the
technical obstacles, it was not until the final song before the interval,
‘Juchhe!’ [‘Hurrah’!] that she got into her stride and
began to complement the joyful playfulness and exuberance of the piano’s
energetic accompaniment.

Royal seemed more in tune with the emotional sentiments of Schumann’s
‘Gedichte der Kˆnigin Maria Stuart’ [‘Poems of Mary, Queen of
Scots’ (Op.135)], with which she commenced the second half of this
recital. The focused, warm tone of her lower register perfectly communicated
the sincere outpourings of the condemned Queen. For this listener, the musical
and dramatic peak was attained in ‘Abschied von der Weit’
[‘Farewell to the world’] and ‘Gebet’
[‘Prayer’], where Royal’s controlled lyricism, accompanied by
a greater clarity of diction, captured both the sombreness and poignancy of the
queen’s last moments. It was an original and striking programming choice
to ‘interrupt’ this regal sequence with Brahms’ boisterous
‘Murrays Ermordung’ [Op.14 No.3, ‘The bonnie Earl
o’Moray’], a setting of a folk poem in which a queen mourns her
clandestine and illicit lover. Again, Royal’s technical assurance fully
justified the juxtaposition, as the soprano proved herself able to convey
heartfelt regret through a range of idioms.

In the concluding songs by Brahms, Royal finally discovered a dramatic
energy and colour which until now had been lacking; ‘Nachtigallen
schwingen’ [Op.6 No.6 ‘Nightingales flutter’], ‘Der
Fr¸hling’ [Op.6 No.2 ‘Spring’] and ‘Die
Trauernde’ [Op.7 Np.5 ‘The sad maiden’] demonstrated that she
can produce a myriad of colours to match and enhance the dramatic mood, the
effortless melodic sweep and the sheer beauty of her timbre perfectly conveying
the lyrical sensuality of these songs. For a singer accustomed to the operatic
stage, however, Royal’s lack of physical movement — she scarcely
moved her arms throughout these songs, preferring to place the expressive
burden solely on the voice — was a little disconcerting. This rather
short recital concluded with a single encore, the traditional song,
‘Early one morning’.

So, although there was much to admire, a convincing personal response was
not always in evidence during this performance. Royal can without doubt pass
the vocal trials but she is not always the mistress of the musico-dramatic

Claire Seymour

image_description=Kate Royal [Photo by Weber]
product_title=Kate Royal at Wigmore Hall, London; 7 May 2009
Schumann: 6 Lieder, Op.107; Brahms: Liebestreu; In der Fremde; Lied; Parole; Ankl‰nge; Juchhe!; Schumann: Gedichte der Kˆnigin Maria Stuart, Op.135; Brahms: Murrays Ermordung. Nachtigallen schwingen. Wie die Wolke nach der Sonne. Der Fr¸hling. Volkslied. Der Trauernde. Liebe und Fr¸hling I & II.
product_by=Kate Royal, Soprano; Christopher Glynn, Piano.
product_id=Above: Kate Royal [Photo by Weber]