Songs of Night and Travel, Wigmore Hall

All of which featured
in this interesting programme of nineteen- and early-twentieth-century song —
some familiar, some rare — given by countertenor Christopher Ainslie, pianist
James Baillieu and violist Gary Pomeroy (all of South African origin) at the
Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Ainslie’s biographical note in the programme booklet reports
that his future engagements this season include Gluck’s Orfeo at
Opera de Lyon, and Handel’s Agrippina in Gˆttingen and
Saul at Glyndebourne. This is the sort of repertoire which has won
Ainslie deserved renown and seen him lauded as ‘A rock star of Baroque
opera’ (New York Times); and, his technically masterful and vocally
powerful performances have made one critic ‘keen to hear him in Britten and
other florid roles, ancient and modern’ ( Seen & Heard). But,
herein lays a problem which presumably this recital was intended to address:
how is a countertenor to break the chains that bind him to roles from the
Classical or mythic past, or to demonstrate that his voice can embody through
its power and agility more than just majesty or ethereality, mystery or purity.
Can the countertenor voice express the rich and diverse range of human emotions
so characteristic of the texts of nineteenth-century lieder, for example?

This performance did not offer a definitive answer. There was much to
admire. Ainslie has a pure, focused tone which he can darken and brighten at
will. His delivery is controlled: his sustained notes are smooth and even,
while runs and leaps demonstrate the nimbleness and suppleness of his powerful
countertenor. There was nothing in this recital that was not poised, elegant
and beautiful. But, at times Ainslie lacked the variety of tonal colour, the
expressive nuance and sense of vocal freedom, and the innate responsiveness to
textual meaning and the very sounds of the words, which is needed to fully or
convincingly capture and convey the essence of ‘meaning’.

Ainslie started hesitatingly and did not seem comfortable in the first song,
Ivor Gurney’s ‘Sleep’. The opening invocation, ‘Come, Sleep’, while
crisply delivered, lacked warmth, and the cold, somewhat glassy tone did not
seem fitting for an appeal for soothing solace from the day’s cares: ‘with
thy sweet deceiving/ Lock me in delight awhile’. Pianist James Baillieu did
imbue his oscillating semiquavers with some assuaging softness and sentiment,
but Gurney’s wonderful climactic melody, ‘O let my joys have some
abiding’, was strangely unmoving. However, the purity and stillness of
Ainslie’s delivery was perfect for Roger Quilter’s ‘The Night
Piece’ — one of the six songs of the cycle To Julia (Op.8, 1905),
settings of poems from Robert Herrick’s vast collection, Hesperides
(1648). The performers were alert to the imagery of the opening stanzas,
the piano’s staccato quavers suggesting the ‘shooting stars’ and
‘sparks of fire’, the latter growing in intensity through the voice’s
dotted-rhythm melisma. Ainslie’s concluding lines were impassioned and
seductive — ‘And when I shall meet/ Thy silvery feet/ My soul I’ll pour
into thee’ — while Baillieu’s accelerating close suggested that Julia had
indeed been won.

Two songs by Schubert, ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’ D.827 (Night and dreams) and
‘Die Sterne’ D.939 (The stars) were perhaps the least successful items of
the evening. Though Ainslie found a legato translucence to depict the moonlight
of the ‘Holy night’ in the former song, floating high above the dark,
dreamy piano semiquaver accompaniment, and enriched his tone at the end of
‘Die Sterne’ to suggest the intensity of the stars’ shining blessing
which links heaven and earth, in neither lied did he use the text expressively,
in ways which might give greater character to the vocal phrases.
Mendelssohn’s ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6 was more dramatic and penetrating.
Begun in 1845 but not completed until 1847, the song was perhaps the
composer’s way of coming to terms with his beloved sister Fanny’s death in
May of that year. Here, the opening verses were touchingly introspective, the
rising question, ‘Where now is … the sweet light of the loved one’s
eyes?’ (‘Der Liebsten s¸fler Augenschein’) indicative of the
protagonist’s love and pain. Baillieu pushed the tempo forward in the final
stanza and the glowing vigour of the voice conjured the ‘cascade of bright
sound’ which pours forth from the nightingale, conjoined with and consoling
the poet-speaker.

Ainslie related the narrative clearly in Hugo Wolf’s quirky
‘Storchenbotschaft’ (1888) (Stork-tidings) but more animation was needed to
capture the parodic irony of Mˆrike’s version of the folk legend that storks
carry new babies to expectant parents. Baillieu’s twisting chromatic wriggles
added humour, though, and the piano’s over-the-top postlude was fittingly
riotous, as the new father greets the arrival of twins. The highlight of the
first half was Richard Strauss’s ‘Nacht’ Op.10 No.3 (1885): again
Baillieu contributed greatly to the power of the song, his opening pianissimo
quavers delicately evoking the Night who ‘slips softly from the trees’, the
repeated notes in the inner voices expressively nuanced. Here, too, Ainslie was
more attentive to the text: the silver from the river and the gold of the
cathedral’s roof gleamed in the penultimate verse, while a sense of mystery
pervaded the final stanza depicting the plundered bush. The plunging octave of
the final line, ‘O die Nacht, mir bangt, sie stehle Dich mir auch’ (Ah the
night, I fear, will steal you too from me), was beautifully clear and deeply

Either side of the interval, Ainslie was joined by viola player Gary
Pomeroy, who had already demonstrated his relaxed expressive style in Frank
Bridge’s elegiac Pensiero (1905) and stormy Allegro appassionato
(1908) for viola and piano. In ‘Gestille Sehnsucht’ (Assuaged
longing), the first of Brahms’s Two Songs Op.91, the warm viola
counter-melodies and motifs blended attractively with Ainslie’s countertenor,
highlighting the ‘soft voices’ of the birds and the stirring ‘desires’
of the poet-speaker. The double-stopped final cadence powerfully intimated the
consummation of the singer’s longing. ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (Sacred
lullaby) played to Ainslie’s strengths, displaying his sweet tone and vocal
power, the latter most dramatically when the mother rebukes the raging wind for
disturbing her sleeping child. Bridge’s Three songs with viola (1906-7) were
not published until 1982 but judging from this splendid performance these
settings, which share the theme of death, deserve to be more often heard in the
concert hall. The trio brought forth the individual character of each song: the
dissonant, mournful passions of ‘Far, far from each other’ (Matthew
Arnold), the angry sense of loss and confusion in ‘Where is it that our soul
doth go?’ (Heinrich Heine), and the consolation offered by the Romantic
sublime in ‘Music when soft voices die’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley).
Baillieu’s whispering, brushing chords in the latter were magical.

Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel concluded the recital. The
opening song, ‘The vagabond’, set off at a vigorous pace which established
an energy and onward motion which was sustained through the cycle. ‘Let
beauty awake’ would have benefited from greater tonal variety, while ‘The
roadside fire’ and ‘Whither must I wander?’ require a stronger folk-like
robustness; but Ainslie once again exploited his ethereal tone and vocal
control in ‘In dreams’, while Baillieu’s wonderful introduction made
palpable the eponymous ‘infinite shining heavens’ of the following song.
Best of all was ‘Youth and love’, in which the phrases flowed with
mesmerising fluidity and freshness. The return of the vagabond’s stoic tread
marked the end of the cycle; if Ainslie had not quite managed to inhabit the
journeymen’s shoes, he had told his story engagingly.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Christopher Ainslie — countertenor, James
Baillieu — piano, Gary Pomeroy — viola.

Songs of Night and Travel : Gurney — ‘Sleep’; Quilter,
‘The Night Piece’; Schubert — ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’ D.827, ‘Die
Sterne’ D.939; Mendelssohn — ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6; Richard Strauss
— ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10 No.3; Hugo Wolf — ‘Storchenbotschaft’; Bridge
— Pensiero, Allegro appassionato; Brahms — Two songs with viola Op.91;
Anonymous — ‘I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger’; Bridge — Three
songs with viola; Vaughan Williams — Songs of Travel. Wigmore Hall,
London, Wednesday 21st January 2015.

image_description=Christopher Ainslie [Photo by Denis Jouglet]
product_title=Songs of Night and Travel, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Christopher Ainslie [Photo by Denis Jouglet]