Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The foundation has diverse and commendable aims, from encouraging and
supporting young musicians on the threshold of their careers, to initiating
educational programmes for school children from underprivileged backgrounds, to
performing public recitals at two London hospitals and working with patients on
their wards.

Concordia also provide public concerts at prestigious venues across London,
and this Annual Prize Winners Concert at the Wigmore Hall, in association with
the Worshipful Company of Musicians, was one such occasion. British
mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford added the Concordia Founder’s Prize to a long
list of awards that she has received in recent years. A student on the Opera
Course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Langford is the recipient
of the School’s Susan Longford Prize, the Paul Hamburger lieder prize and the
Violette Szabo award for English song. She also won the 2013 John Fussell Award
and is a Samling Scholar, and is a recipient of the Elizabeth Eagle-Bott Award
for visually impaired musicians from the RNIB. Langford was accompanied here by
pianist Ben-San Lau, winner of the Concordia Foundation’s Serena Nevill

Langford and Lau’s first sequence of songs juxtaposed the serene and
spiritual with the rumbustious and rollicking. Charles Ives’s ‘Songs my
mother taught me’ was written in 1895, fifteen years after Dvo?·k’s more
famous setting, which we would hear later in the evening. Langford was focused
and direct, the tone open and well-rounded. The steadiness of line, despite the
low tessitura and long phrases, was impressive and typical of the considerable
composure and maturity that she displayed throughout the recital. Lau
complemented the softly rising arcs in the voice with delicately oscillating
octaves above a low intoning drone in the bass, and the subtle shifting of the
harmonies and musical layers in the piano against the gentle vocal melody
created a spaciousness and timelessness.

Herbert Howell’s ‘King David’ followed. This is one of Howell’s
finest songs, and one of many settings that he made of poetry by his friend
Walter de la Mare. Here Langford was a clear and unaffected storyteller: she
used the rhythmic flexibilities of the score and her alluring tone to imbue the
tale of King David’s sorrow with passion and sincerity, building an operatic
‘scena’ of great intensity. The richness and power of the vocal line
communicated the anguish that haunted the King’s heart despite the soothing
pleasures of the playing of one hundred harps. Yet, there was gentleness and
poignancy too, as the King wanders in his garden and is uplifted by the
innocent song of the nightingale, even though this little bird — like
Hardy’s darkling thrush — is oblivious to his dark feelings: ‘Tell me,
thou little bird that singest,/ Who taught my grief to thee?’ Lau’s
delicate traceries and arpeggios gave voice to the bird’s melancholy
utterances, and the piano postlude evoked the elegiac loveliness of the
Georgian poets.

The darkness was more overt in two songs from Benjamin Britten’s A
Charm of Lullabies
, a collection of five lullabies which the composer
wrote for the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans. ‘A Cradle Song’, a setting of
Blake, began with a languidly swinging bass line from Lau but the entry of the
voice’s entreaty, ‘Sleep, sleep, beauty bright’, quelled the forward
movement. For much of the song, the vocal line was richly expressive and
exploratory. The dreaminess culminated in the beautifully quiet reprise of the
opening vocal melody, the piano’s final gestures luring us into slumber. We
quickly awoke, though, with the alarming admonishment which opens ‘A
Charm’: ‘Quiet!’ Langford amusingly captured the exasperation of the
mother whose child will not sleep, although the imploring tone of the final
requests, ‘Quiet, sleep!’, suggested deeper unrest. Lau negotiated the busy
piano part with accomplishment. We then returned to Ives for a flamboyant
rendering of ‘The Circus Band’; Langford achieved a thrilling brightness at
the top and demonstrated impressive vocal agility, while Lau did a sterling job
of evoking the prancing horses and blasting trombones. As those waiting in Main
Street for the arrival of the circus declare, ‘Oh! Aint it a grand and
glorious noise!’

Next, the duo looked back to the art songs of the nineteenth century,
beginning with Schubert’s ‘Der blinde Knabe’ (The blind boy). Initially I
found Lau’s accompaniment — rippling right-hand figuration and a two-quaver
staccato interjection in the left hand — a little intrusive; but, this was a
rare occasion in this performance where Lau was not wonderfully supportive and
sensitive, and Schubert’s writing does make considerable demands on the
pianist with its rhythmic stumblings and uncertainties. Colley Cibber’s poem
(translated into German by Jacob Nicolaus de Jachelutta Craigher) of childhood
tragedy — in which the blind boy asks of the sighted, ‘O ye love ones, tell
me some day/ What is this thing called light?’ — might lead the listener to
expect gushing Victorian sentimentality. But, Schubert’s setting conveys not
pathos but endurance, emphasizing the essential inner strength of the child. In
the halting opening phrases, Langford created an air of wonder and mystery,
while the movement to the minor key in the fourth stanza — ‘In truth I know
not your delights/ And yet ’tis not my fault/ In suffering of it I’m glad/
With patience I endure’ — was haunting, but gentle and lacking self-pity.
The return to the major key at the close — ‘I am as happy as a King,/
though still a poor blind boy (‘ein armer blinder Knab’) brought stillness
and peace.

Two of AntonÌn Dvo?·k’s Gypsy Songs
(Zigeunermelodien) followed. ‘Songs my mother taught me’ (Kdyû
mne star· matka zpÌvat, zpÌvat ucÌvala) was a highlight of the evening, Lau
establishing a beguiling lilt and Langford employing a beautiful mezza
to convey the singer’s sadness and hope. She made a good attempt at
the Czech too. ‘Give a hawk a fine cage’ (Dejte klec jestr·bu ze zlata
ryzÈho) brought the sequence to a rousing, rhetorical close.

After the interval, Langford and Lau visited Mahler’s Der Knaben
. The vocal characterisation was strong in ‘Trost im
Ungl¸ck’ (Solace in Misfortune), as Langford captured the petulant
feistiness of the hussar’s paramour. In ‘Wo die schˆnen Trompeten
blasen’ (Where the fair trumpet sounds) — another dialogue between a young
girl and her lover, but one which intimates both erotic passion and loss —
the full richness of the mezzo-soprano’s voice blossomed charismatically, in
lush phrases which were focused and accurate. Lau’s figures summoned up the
bugles and drums of the battleground, and these military gestures contrasted
poignantly with the tenderness of the lovers’ intimated, ambiguous encounter.

In three of Poulenc’s 1948 Calligrammes (a collection of settings
of Apollinaire, whose subtitle ‘PoËmes de la Paix et de la Guerre’ reveals
the sufferings of war to be its subject), Langford’s French diction was less
clear. But, in the brief ‘Il pleut’ she gave her voice a sheen which
pierced through the piano’s ‘rain’ (the cascades match Apollinaire’s
visual ‘picture’, for the typography of the poem mimics the slants of
falling rain). Here, Lau once again made the difficult figuration sound
effortless. ‘Aussi bien que les cigales’ (As well as the cicadas) was
notable for its rhetorical bravura and effulgent energy. To conclude the vocal
sequence Langford and Lau selected Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Tango’, from
The History of the ThÈ Dansant, composed in 1994 and based on the
popular dances of the 1920s. Its combination of exuberance and lyricism was a
charming conclusion to the vocal items in the programme.

Closing each half of the recital, the Ducasse Trio — winners of the
Concordia’s Barthel Prize — presented works for piano, clarinet and violin
by Ives, Khachaturian and BartÛk. Violinist Charlotte Maclet assuredly
conjured different worlds, from the reserved serenity of Ives to the brashness
of BartÛk’s scordatura exclamations. In the latter composer’s
Contrasts, Maclet’s strong tone and virtuosity communicated
BartÛk’s passion for the music of his native Hungary, and helped to make the
challenging score persuasive and engaging. There was much fluid, agile playing
from clarinettist William Duncombe in Khachaturian’s Trio and pianist Fiachra
Garvey was ever responsive to his fellow musicians. It was good to have an
opportunity to hear these seldom performed chamber works.

As they gathered on stage together at the end of the evening, the
performers’ enjoyment and pride was evident and

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Bethan Langford mezzo-soprano, Ben-San Lau piano, Ducasse Trio
(Charlotte Maclet violin, William Duncombe clarinet, Fiachra Garvey piano).
Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 13th April 2015.

Charles Ives: ‘Songs my mother taught me’; Herbert Howells:
‘King David’; Benjamin Britten: A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (‘A
Cradle Song’, ‘A Charm’); Charles Ives: ‘The Circus Band’; Franz
Schubert: ‘Der blinde Knabe’ D833; AntonÌn Dvo?·k’s Gypsy
(Zigeunermelodien) Op. 55 (No.4 ‘Songs my mother taught
me’ (Kdyû mne star· matka zpÌvat, zpÌvat ucÌvala), No.7 ‘Give a hawk a
fine cage’ (Dejte klec jestr·bu ze zlata ryzÈho); Charles Ives: Largo for
Violin, Clarinet and Piano; Aram Khachaturian: Trio for clarinet, violin and
piano; Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Trost im Ungl¸ck’,
‘Wo die schˆnen Trompeten blasen’); Francis Poulenc: Calligrammes
(No.4 ‘Il pleut’, No.5 ‘La Gr‚ce exilÈe’, No.6 ‘Aussi bien que
les cigales’; Richard Rodney Bennett: A History of the ThÈ Dansant
(No.3 Tango); BÈla BartÛk: Contrasts Sz.111.

image_description=Bethan Langford [Source:]
product_title=Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Bethan Langford [Source: Bethan Langford]