Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall

Both performers
may be alumni of King’s College Cambridge, but there was little of the
English cathedral tradition in either the selected repertoire or the
performance itself. Indeed, in a recent interview, Zazzo declared his intention
to “push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do” not
just in terms of “different repertoire or singing higher, but showing
that you can give a rounded performance that’s acceptable on all different

Zazzo has received immense praise for his recent operatic portrayals —
in Xerxes and Radamisto at ENO and in Thomas AdËs’
The Tempest at Covent Garden, where he created the role of Trinculo
— and there was certainly an air of excitement as the performers bounded
onto the stage and launched precipitously into the Charles Ives’
‘Memories’, commencing even before the welcoming applause had

Divided into two parts, ‘A) Very pleasant’ and ‘B) Rather
sad’, ‘Memories’ is one of Ives’ most famous comic
songs. Bursting with energy, Zazzo captured the breathless excitement of the
young protagonist who eagerly awaits the rise of the curtain at the opera
house. The song is a witty parody of G&S patter, and Zazzo enjoyed the
flamboyant exaggerations of the song. However, here and in the quieter, more
melancholy ‘Rather sad’, the qualities which were to mar what was
at times an impressive and striking performance were immediately present. For
Zazzo’s countertenor is a rather cold, hard instrument — suitable
perhaps for Ives’ sharp satire, but less appealing at more reflective
moments. Moreover, the text was almost unintelligible, here and throughout the
recital, as Zazzo continually elongated the vowels and swallowed or ignored the
consonants; this created the impression of a lack of emotional involvement with
the text, as verbal nuances were not distinguishable, an effect exacerbated by
a rather inflexible approach to the delivery and shaping of the melodic

The performers certainly shared an innate feeling for Ives’ varied
idioms. ‘Songs my mother taught me’ possessed a controlled
simplicity; in ‘Walking’ Lepper vigorously conjured up the sounds
and rhythms of everyday urban life, church bells, a jazz dance, surging
traffic. Most successful of these opening songs was ‘The Housatonic at
Stockbridge’: here the strumming piano chords conveyed the many colours
and translucency of the ‘cloudy willow and the plumy elm’ beside
the ‘dreamy realm’ of the ‘contented river’. As the
Housatonic River meandered its way through the landscape, the power and
penetration of Zazzo’s focused tone was apparent, although a tendency to
crescendo rather too forcefully through particular syllables at times revealed
a slight graininess.

Samuel Barber’s ten Hermit Songs of 1952 are scarcely, if
ever, performed by a countertenor. The texts, as Barber explained are
“settings of anonymous, Irish texts of the eighth to thirteenth centuries
written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of manuscripts they were
copying or illuminating — perhaps not always meant to be seen by their
Father Superiors”. And, the songs are principally declamatory in nature;
indeed, the composer eschews time signatures in order to allow the singer to
declaim the rhythmic irregularities of the poetry. The archaisms of the texts
are underlined by sparse textures and frequent bare fourths and fifths in the
accompaniment — as in ‘The Crucifixion’, where the driving
intensity of the painful image of suffering, ‘Ah sore was the suffering
borne/ By the body of Mary’s Son’, is counterbalanced by a quiet
piano postlude whose high register and bare fifths evoke the poignancy of the
grief, ‘Which for His sake/ Came upon His Mother’.

Zazzo’s intonation was well-centred throughout these songs, and at
times he responded very effectively to textual details — delivering a
whirling glissando to convey the sound of the bell struck ‘on a windy
night’ in ‘Church bell at night’, and emphasising the dynamic
melismas in ‘Sea-snatch’ to imitate the apocalyptic wind which as
‘consumed us, swallowed us’, culminating in a piercing cry to
‘O King of the starbright Kingdom of Heaven’. In the enigmatic,
ephemeral ‘Promiscuity’, he revealed a more subtle and varied
palette; while at the climax of ‘St. Ita’s vision’
Zazzo’s astonishing range, and his ability to control his voice across
the registers, was unveiled. Throughout these songs, Lepper exploited contrasts
of register and brought vitality to the rhythmic irregularities. Zazzo, a
natural stage performer relished the dramatic quality of the songs, readily
adopting different personae, and bringing the characters and lives from the
medieval past into the present, revealing the on-going relevance of the
texts’ sentiments in the modern world.

The second half of the recital began with Ned Rorem’s War
of 1969, settings of Walt Whitman’s diary of the Civil War,
‘Specimen Days’. In these recitative-like declamations
Zazzo’s imprecise diction was a more serious problem, although some songs
were more successful in this regard than others. In ‘Specimen
Case’, steady piano chords punctuated a clearer account of the war-shock
suffered by a ‘poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse shining
hair’, and here Zazzo established a mood of pathos and regret. Similarly,
the unaccompanied opening of ‘The real war will never get in books’
(which Rorem gives the unusual marking, ‘flexible, declamatory, slower
than speech, but rich and full, supple and grand’) was deeply moving.
Humming through closed mouth for the final phrase, allowing his voice to
dissolve as we pondered on ‘how much, and of importance, has already
been, buried in the grave’, Zazzo showed that he is not afraid to take
risks and experiment with colour — here to touching effect. And, in
‘A night battle’ the shout, ‘Charge men charge?…’ was
extravagantly delivered. Rorem’s accompaniments do much to convey the
drama of the prose, and at the start of this song Lepper sensitively
interweaved the right hand line with the voice, while an ethereal concluding
flourish evoked the silvery radiance of the moon at dusk. The grotesque fury of
the postlude to the jazz inflected ‘Inauguration ball’ was

Zazzo concluded this all-American programme which a new song-cycle by Andrew
Gerle, ‘Drink Well and Sing’, based on poems by, and inspired by,
Anacreon of Teos. It concerns a poet at the end of his life, as he reflects on
his lost youth and consoles himself with thoughts of wine, women and song.
Gerle is best known, and highly acclaimed, for his music theatre work —
the composer of six highly praised musicals, he is a recipient of the Jonathan
Larson Award, three Richard Rodgers Awards, and was the first composer selected
to receive the Burton Lane Composer’s Fellowship from the Theatre Hall of Fame.
And, there were plenty of Broadway touches here, not least in the boisterous
‘Bring me the winebowl, in which Zazzo enjoyed the extravagant
rhetoricism, relishing the strident semitonal dissonances between piano and
voice. Affective ‘blue notes’ coloured ‘Once again’, a
lament for lost love and passing years: ‘And she tells me that my hair is
white,/ And say oh!/ She loves another’. As in the Rorem songs, the piano
does much to relay the narrative. In ‘You’ve snipped the perfect
blossoms off’, Lepper expertly controlled the momentum, manipulating
colour, dynamics and rhythm, interweaving sensitively with the vocal melody.
The staccato stabbings of prancing horses, added much wry irony to the
miniature, ‘The Mysians’: ‘The Mysians first mated/
Horse-mounting asses with mares/ Inventing the half-assed mule.’ The
gentle lilting accompaniment of ‘Before I depart’ brought the cycle
to a restful close, as the poet-speaker longs to ‘make a bed of soft
myrtles and lotus plants,/ And drink to my friends’.

This was an intriguing and entertaining evening of song; Zazzo demonstrated
an admirable seriousness and considerable musical intelligence in committing so
much complex material — music and text — to memory, especially in
the second part of the performance. However, these cycles are particularly
dependent on clear enunciation of the text for their full impact to be felt,
and in this regard there is still some work to do.

Claire Seymour


Ives: Memories; Songs my mother taught me; Walking; The Housatonic at
Barber: Hermit Songs Op. 29.
Rorem: War Scenes.
Gerle: Drink Well
and Sing.

image_description=Lawrence Zazzo [Photo courtesy of artist]
product_title=Lawrence Zazzo, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor; Simon Lepper piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 29 March 2011
product_id=Above: Lawrence Zazzo [Photo courtesy of artist]