Ailish Tynan, Wigmore Hall

A Prologue, ‘Tread Softly’, opened the door to the Irish
imagination. Thomas Dunhill’s ‘The cloths of heaven’, a
presentation of Yeats’ oft-set poem, skilfully captures the depth of the
poet’s passion and the fragility of his dreams, in gently tolling chords
and a delicately meandering vocal line. Immediately apparent was
Burnside’s instinctive sensitivity to the rhythms and colours of Irish
lyric poetry, quietly evoking both the shining ‘golden and silver
light’ of heavens’ cloths and the ‘dim and [the] dark’
shadows of night.

Indeed, throughout the recital the piano played an integral part in the
narrative: shaping and pacing the drama as in ‘The bard of Armagh
(arranged Herbert Hughes); establishing the emotional ambience as in the
cascading ripples and swirls which open Frank Bridge’s
‘Goldenhair’, with its delicate piano postlude, or the sweeping
modal scales which convey the tempestuous deluge of Herbert Howell’s
‘The Flood’; drawing forth a particular poetic nuance, as at the
close of Hughes’ ‘She weeps over Rahoon’, where the trickling
piano descent perfectly evoked the ‘muttering rain’ which succumbed
to raging flood in the subsequent song. Surprisingly, considering that she was
on ‘home territory’, Ailish Tynan was initially less comfortable;
her intonation was insecure in the opening song and took some time to settle,
and she seemed ill at ease throughout the first half of the recital.
Tynan’s voice is a powerful instrument and she worked hard to capture the
pianissimo restraint of the tender lyrics, but her worthy concern to
interpret and colour the text occasionally led her to over-emphasise a
particular word or phrase producing an inelegant interruption to the melodic
line, and at times threatening to enlarge textual nuances into disproportionate
melodrama. Fortunately, Edmund Pendleton’s ‘Bid adieu’, which
closed the first half, signalled a change in confidence and control: here Tynan
relished the upward flourish of ‘Happy love is come to woo’ and
evoked the warm, tender eroticism of ‘Begin thou softly to unzone/ Thy
girlish bosom unto him’. She returned after the interval in a more
relaxed mode, delighting in the characterisations and narratives, moving
smoothly from energetic declaration to sweet yearning.

The first sequence of songs, ‘Lovers, Mother, Sisters’, opened
with a slightly tentative rendering of one of Benjamin Britten’s most
well-known and accomplished arrangements – his poignant setting of
Yeats’ ‘The Salley Gardens’. Britten returned in the second
half, ‘Avenging and bright’ and ‘The last rose of
summer’ forming part of the ‘With your Guns and Drums’
selection. Both songs are characterised by the composer’s striking
attention to detail, and in the former Burnside enjoyed the defiant flourishes,
the running bass line and contrapuntal energy, which accompany the history of
Conor, King of Ulster, whose treachery in putting to death the three sons of
Usna is considered one of the greatest of tragic Irish tales. ‘The last
rose of summer’, a setting of Thomas Moore, was one of the highlights of
the evening: Britten’s ‘Screw-like’ harmonies evoke
the unsettling loneliness of lover languishing after the death of her
soldier-lover, and subtle changes of tempo and dynamic were expertly controlled
by Burnside and Tynan.

It was the less familiar voices, however, who offered the real treasures in
this programme. Herbert Hughes was a founder member of the Irish Folk Song
Society of London in 1903, and he was represented here by both boisterous and
tender settings of traditional Irish melodies. Unfortunately, although she
conveyed the animation of the unruly sailor in Hughes’ lively arrangement
of the ‘Marry me now’, Tynan forgot the words in the final verse,
omitting four lines and thereby causing the lusty sailor to sound even more
desperate in his final pleas for wedlock! Hughes’ setting of ‘The
Gartan Mother’s Lullaby’ is a sad, sombre night-song, and here
Tynan employed a warm lower register, conveying the darkness of the solemn
evening and creating an effective contrast with the piano’s otherworldly
evocation of the ghostly ‘rings of fog’ which wreath ‘the
Green Man’s thorn’.

Hughes was also liberally represented in the second half of the programme,
where a more relaxed Tynan powerfully captured both the bitterness of the drama
of ‘Johnny I hardly knew ye!’ and the quiet despair of
‘Johnny Doyle’, the latter conveyed by secure and controlled octave
unisons with the piano at the close: ‘You’ll send for Johnny Doyle,
mother, but I fear it is too late,/ For death it is coming and sad is my
fate.’ Three further Hughes’ arrangements ended the recital:
‘When through life unblessed we rove’, ‘I know where
I’m goin’’, whose open-ended harmonic sequences suggest the
certitude of the singer’s journey to her loved one, and the light-hearted
‘Tigaree torum orum’.

The Anglo-Irish composer, writer, collector and arranger, E.J. Moeran, spent
the spring of 1948 living with a group of tinkers in south-west Ireland,
assembling his collection Songs from County Kerry. The haunting
harmonies and melancholy lyricism of ‘The lost lover’ are typical
of his touching idiom, and in ‘The Roving Dingle boy, Tynan achieved a
flowing naturalism.

Alongside these ‘conventional’ arrangements and song, Burnside
had some surprises in store. The programme notes reminded us that Samuel Barber
had a lifelong interest in Irish poetry, including the work of Joyce and Yeats;
his Ten Hermit Songs set words translated from anonymous Irish texts
from the early Middle Ages – thoughts, observations and poem which were
jotted down on the margins of manuscripts by scholars and monks. The enlarged,
‘operatic’ scope of the third of these songs, ‘St Ita’s
Vision’, appealed to Tynan’s sense of drama, and she effectively
conveyed the forceful passion of St Ita, Bride of Munster, in her
quasi-recitative declaration that she will accept nothing less than a baby to
nurse. Both singer and pianist captured both the passion of St Ita’s
commitment and the transcendence of the vision, Tynan’s sweetness –
‘Infant Jesus, at my breast,/ By my heart every night,’ –
complemented by Burnside’s concluding suggestion of an ethereal choir of
heavenly lyres. Similarly, the last song in the cycle, ‘The desire for
hermitage’, offers an expansive emotional canvas, one which the
performers exploited effectively. Even more unusual, and thought-provoking, was
Burnside’s inclusion of John Cage’s setting of lines adapted from
Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, ‘The wonderful widow of eighteen
springs’, which, characteristically, involved some rearranging and
preparation of the piano. The spare, still melody, enlivened by occasional
leaps of a fifth, was accompanied by rhythmic tapping on different parts of the
closed piano, producing a haunting ambience which successfully suggested the
fragmentary reminiscences of the text.

Where does arrangement end and composition begin? This is a question
Burnside asks in the programme notes, prompted by the inclusion of
Hughes’ original composition, ‘She weeps over Rahoon’ –
an intense setting of Joyce’s spare and stark evocation of the bleak rain
plaintively falling on Ireland’s western coast. Composers may, like
Hughes, seek to render these melodies faithfully as they have been heard for
hundreds of years; or they may, like Britten for example, establish their own
stamp on a familiar melody. For the performer, surely the same questions arise:
how to engage with, and respect, a tradition, while offering something personal
and new. Though a little unsure of her path at the start of the evening, Tynan
had, by the end, found her way home, and her encore, a simple but fresh
rendering of the traditional melody, ‘Marble Halls’, sent us all
home happy.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Ailish Tynan [Photo courtesy of Intermusica]
product_title=Ailish Tynan, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Ailish Tynan, soprano; Iain Burnside, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Friday 9th April 2010.
product_id=Programme: Celtic Woman:
Prologue: Tread Softly
Lovers, Mothers, Sisters
Joyce’s Women
With Your Guns and Drums
Epilogue: The Blind Man he can See