Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

Sibelius’ musical responses to the Finnish folk legend Kalevala
are diverse in idiom and form, and they were pivotal in the development of the
composer’s musical language and identity. Kullervo (a symphonic poem
for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra) and the orchestral suite,
Lemmink‰inen (which includes the ever-popular The Swan of
are well-known, but few will be familiar with Luonnotar
(1913), a tone poem for soprano and orchestra, which the Sibelius arranged
for voice and piano in 1915. Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature and Mother of
the Seas and the text, from the first part of the Kalevala, tells of
the creation of the world and the oceans.

Tilbrook’s quiet, rapid oscillations opened the work, creating an air of
anticipation suggestive of a tense, poised moment before creation, as
Luonnotar, the ‘maiden of the air’, floats alone in the ‘vast plains of
the sky’. Crowe’s first entry lies low in the voice, but it was rich and
strong, rising powerfully and with clarity, supported by simple,
middle-register held chords; it was an ancient incantation, an expression of
the goddess’s loneliness as she soars aloft. Luonnotar then descends into the
fertile sea and — exploiting the open vowel sounds of the Finnish text, which
she articulated convincingly — Crowe’s arcing, yearning lines were
paradoxically both achingly beautifully and laden with anxiety as Luonnotar
drifts in the turbulent waters, the latter evoked by Tilbrook’s sensitively
graded rippling accompaniment.

Crowe mastered the fiendishly difficult, often very suddent, changes of
register and, pronouncing the mythical spirit’s words of self-pity and fear,
she whispered the eerily sighing vocal line with absolutely true intonation,
the wide gap between the climbing soprano line and Tilbrook’s dark resonant
bass intimating her alienation and despair. The hushed tremblings of the
subsequent piano interlude were wonderfully controlled and veiled, before the
re-entry of the voice initiated a sense of release: a bird appears, seeking the
shores upon which to build its nest, and Crowe’s expansive line seemed
suspended in the air as it built to the bird’s climactic other-worldly cries,
‘Ei! Ei!’ (No! No!), expressing the bird’s distress and exhaustion.
Crowe’s breath control was incredibly impressive as she maintained a focused
tone while grading the dynamic peaks and lows with sensitivity and skill.

After an astonishingly tumultuous piano commentary, the ensuing calm was
deeply poignant: the Water Mother lifts her knee from the seas, upon which the
bird can make its nest. Crowe’s variant of the lyrical phrases which had
previously depicted Luonnotar’s regrets now assumed a more mysterious air,
Tilbrook’s low fifths quietly but sonorously echoing far below. When the nest
falls into the waters and the egg is broken into fragments, the essence of the
sky and firmaments are released, and here the performers retreated almost to
nothing, creating an ethereal tranquillity, Tilbrook’s ever-widening
tessitura conjuring the limitless cosmos as Crowe’s final melody climbed with
the crystalline exquisiteness of a star in the sky: a mystical close, but one
whose sense of scarcely comprehensible vastness was also suggestive of the
bleak horrors of the First World War.

Despite the enormous stamina demanded by Sibelius’s epic chronicle, Crowe
had plenty in reserve for Berg’s Sieben Fr¸he Lieder which
followed. Written in 1905-08, when the composer was still under the tutelage of
Arnold Schˆnberg, the songs look back to the late Romantic musical worlds of
Strauss, Mahler and Wolf, sideways to the compositional rigour of his teacher
and at times — as in the whole-tone scales of the first song, ‘Nacht’ —
to the harmonic palette of Debussy, and forwards to the expressive richness of
Berg’s own later writing for the voice. ‘Die Nachtigall’ (The
Nightingale, a setting of Theodor Storm) was powerfully direct, Crowe’s
ecstatic exclamation, ‘Die Rosen aufgesprungen’ (The roses have sprung up)
an outpouring of optimistic fervour.

‘Schilflied’ (Reed song) was wonderfully lyrica:,’ Crowe’s account
of a lover’s journey along a secret forest path whose reedy borders symbolise
the traveller’s inner emotions — passion and despair — was imbued with
Romantic longing. The broad melodic gestures of ‘Traumgekrˆnt (Crowned with
dreams) were confident and exuberant, while ‘Im Zimmer’ (In this room)
demonstrated a more focused approach to the nuances of the text. The affecting
harmonic nuances, and the voice’s semitonal fall, in the closing phrase of
‘Liebesode’ (Ode to love) wonderfully captured the indissoluble blend of
Romantic joy and suffering. ‘Sommertage’ (Summer days) shone with gleaming

Throughout, Tilbrook was a communicative, thoughtful accompanist. The dark
postlude to ‘Nacht’ was a portentous representation of the singer’s
closing admonition, ‘O gib acht!’ (O take heed!), as the stars shine in the
silent night above the gloom of the deep valley. In ‘Die Nachtigall’, the
gentle, staccato syncopations in the central section of the song injection a
subtle tension which propelled the music forward. Overall, a spirit of elation
tinged with wistfulness was perfectly sustained throughout the sequence.

European Romanticism was superseded by the English folk tradition in the
second half of the recital. First came four songs by Michael Head. The
performers brought discerning drama to ‘Nocturne’, from the recitative-like
opening, depicting the solitude of the moonlit scene, to the more urgent
anguish of the abandoned lover’s recollections of love in the central verse.
The much-loved ‘The ships of Arcady’ was serene, Crowe’s melody conveying
the onlooker’s nostalgia for his vision of the passing ship, while
‘Beloved’ was a more impassioned representation of music’s erotic power.

Traditional folk songs, arranged variously by Britten and Phyllis Tate,
highlighted the sweet purity of Crowe’s soprano, but also the intelligent way
that she uses the voice to communicate an expressive narrative — the
unaccompanied Irish ballad, ‘She moved thro’ the fair’, was particularly
engaging. United by their repeated searches for lost love amid a natural world
whose birds, flowers and fauna simultaneously embody, salve and agitate the
singer’s emotions, these songs revisited — though in less anguished form
— the Romantic vistas of the first half of the evening. In particular, the
simple canon of ‘The ash grove’ was almost Schubertian, and while Crowe’s
beautiful melody in ‘The Salley Gardens’ evoked a simpler mood, depth was
added by Tilbrook’s attentiveness to the harmonic complexities of the
accompaniment; the final lines, ‘But I was young and foolish/ And now am full
of tears’ were discreetly moving. Much technical skill and vocal control is
required to make these songs so effortlessly appealing and enthralling.

Walton’s virtuosic song-cycle A song for the Lord Mayor’s Table
brought the concert to a rousing and impressive conclusion. Commissioned by the
Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for the Festival of the City of London in
1962, the songs encapsulate the striking, absorbing juxtapositions of London
life, presenting resounding church bells and street cries. Crowe sang with
commanding vitality, injecting energy into the vocal lines, the tone lustrous
and the intonation well-centred. The entrancing melody of ‘Glide Gently’, a
setting of Wordsworth, was utterly beguiling and the concluding song, ‘Gay go
up and gay go down’ (Text: anon.) particularly lovely.

There was much to admire and enjoy in this recital. However, the opening
four songs by Schubert were disappointing; Crowe did not seem comfortable with
the idiom and her tone was somewhat withdrawn. While Tilbrook’s introduction
to ‘Der Fluss’ (The river) was eloquent and the accompaniment full of
diverse colours, Crowe’s melody was rather unobtrusive; ‘Auf dem Wasser zu
singen’ (To be sung on the water) was similarly unfocused, although there
were some judicious expressive rubatos. ‘Am den Mond’ (To the moon) found
the soprano in brighter voice, and in ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’ (Night and
dreams) Crowe’s characteristic elegant lyricism was evident in the delicately
articulated opening phrase, ‘Heil’ge Nacht, du sinkest nieder’ (Holy
night, you float down). Sadly, in general in these lieder consonants were
barely audible and vowels inaccurately shaped. Thankfully, Crowe quickly got
into her stride, and we enjoyed an unusually diverse programme, communicated
with directness and passion, concluding with a relaxed encore,

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Lucy Crowe, soprano; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Wigmore Hall, London,
Thursday, 3rd July 2014.

Schubert, ‘Der Fluss’, ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, ‘An den
Mond’, ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’; Sibelius, Luonnotar; Berg,
Sieben fr¸he Lieder; Head, ‘Nocturne’, ‘On the wings of the
wind’, ‘The ships of Arcady’, ‘Beloved’; Folksongs from the British
Isles: ‘The Ash Grove’ (arr. Britten), ‘The Salley Gardens’ (arr.
Britten), ‘The lark in the clear air’ (arr. Tate), ‘She moved thro’ the
fair’ (Trad/ Irish), ‘She’s like the swallow’ (arr. Britten); Walton,
A Song for the Lord Mayor’s table.

image_description=Lucy Crowe [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt Limited]
product_title=Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Lucy Crowe [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt Limited]