Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

The programme opened with a perennial favourite, Schubert’s ‘Die Forelle’
(The trout) and Middleton and Riches immediately made evident their
concern, which was sustained throughout the recital, to communicate the
narrative of their chosen songs – through motivic word-painting, vocal
nuance, diversity of tone and dramatic presence. Middleton delicately
conjured the slithering scales and flapping tail of the capricious fish,
while Riches’ strong, forth-right projection conveyed the fisherman’s
determination to land his catch.

This was beautiful and vivid characterisation. And, ‘Der Alpenj‰ger’ (The
alpine huntsman) was similarly engaging. Riches relished, here and
elsewhere, the opportunity to embody different characters and their
energetic debates, aiming for comic contrast between the floating appeals
of a mother who wishes her son to stay at home to tend the lambs and the
insistent protests of the young adventurer who yearns to set out on his
quest for the gazelle. Riches’ buoyant baritone brought to mind an image of
the eager hazelnut gatherer in Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’, sallying forth ‘in
the eagerness of boyish hope … Tricked out in proud disguise of cast-off
weeds’! The duo exploited the way Schubert’s rhythmic structure tells the
tale, culminating in the stately pronouncements of the Spirit of the
Mountain who intervenes – here with a sonorous gravity worthy of Sarastro –
to protect the trembling gazelle. And, alert to every expressive dimension,
Riches injected a little tenderness and pathos into the god’s final plea,
‘The earth has room for all; why do you persecute my herd?’ (‘Raum f¸r alle
hat die Erde,/Was verfolgst du meine Herde?’)

Riches works hard with his texts, and – as was evident during his vibrant
performance in Purcell’s

King Arthur

with the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall recently – he is not
afraid to prioritise textual meaning over beauty of line to deepen the
expressive meaning, though there is plentiful lyrical mellifluousness too.
I was impressed by the directness and impact of his diction in the three
German lieder. But, while he certainly took care (perhaps too
much?) with the enunciation in the sequence of late-nineteenth and
early-twentieth century Gallic songs that followed, his French is less
idiomatic and this did affect the vocal phrasing, as occasionally Riches’
tendency to emphasise particular syllables disrupted the evenness of the
syllabic scansion that is inherent in the language and reflected in the
melodic and rhythmic settings.

I think, too, that this repertory is not Riches’ natural territory; his
voice is full and strong, and while he did make a good attempt to ‘lighten’
the tone, the result did not feel entirely ‘natural’. The landscape of
FaurÈ’s ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ (The butterfly and the flower) is a world
away from Schubert’s forest foraging and it took Riches a little while to
settle into the new terrain, but the wry reflections of the young man
troubled by the contesting attractions of his lover’s lips and the
rose-coloured ladybird resting on her snow-white neck, in Saint-SaÎns’ ‘La
coccinelle’, were engagingly delivered, Riches swooning into romantic
reverie at the parodic close. Middleton’s atmospheric accompaniment added
much to the sentimental hyperbole of Massenet’ quasi-operatic ‘La mort de
la cigale’ (Death of the cicada), and here Riches exercised satisfying
control during the extended vocal phrases and flowed lightly through the
melismas of the central section.

One wonders why the French seem to have had such a ‘thing’ for insects, for
Ravel, too, included an homage to the cricket (‘Le grillon’) in his Histoires naturelle (1906). Here, Middleton’s tremulous
pointillism was delicately and delightfully evocative and what was really
impressive about this song was the way the duo maintained rhythmic
momentum, and a beguiling narrative, despite the fragmentary vocal line and
seemingly ‘static’ piano gestures. It is the birds rather than the beetles
that Ravel truly celebrates though, and none more than the peacock (‘Le
paon’), whose pomp and pride rang from Middleton’s introductory bars with
the brightness of the feathered eyes of the bird’s train, which was itself
brandished with a startling pianistic flourish at the close. Some critics
have suggested that Ravel is indulging in self-portraiture, here, painting
a picture of the fin de siËcle artist-cum-dandy, and this
performance made that reading a convincing one. I admired Riches’ memory in
this song – indeed, in all of Ravel’s set of five, for the texts are
lengthy and often prosaic, with subtly shifting meters. He made a good
effort to make the words ‘live’ in both ‘Le martin-pÍcheur’ (The
kingfisher), in which Middleton’s grave tone conveyed the bird’s regal
status and demeanour, and in the account, in ‘La pintade’ (The
guinea-fowl), of the quarrelsome nature of a farmer’s querulous hen.

Riches’ had shown his comfort and flair in the musical theatre idiom during
the LSO’s

Bernstein Anniversary

celebrations at the Barbican Hall, before Christmas, when he was displayed
a cocksure swagger and vibrant Yankee drawl in Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. And, while this recital did not, as then, end with
Riches leading the audience in a conga down Wigmore Hall’s aisles, the
final item of the programme, Vernon Duke’s Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo, did give him liberty to don his
Flanders-and-Swann hat, indulge his instinct for showmanship and celebrate
the piquant wit of Vernon Duke’s musical embodiments of the brief portraits
which form Ogden Nash’s bestiary. I have to confess that this repertoire is
not really my cup of tea (I tend to the view that the poetry isn’t worth
reading, let alone setting to music, but many will, for good reasons,
disagree!). But, Riches rattled off the zoological roster with panache, and
his poise and pronunciation were admirable. He couldn’t resist going down
to the farm one more time: his encore, ‘I Bought Me A Cat’ from Copland’s Old American Songs was a noisy and nonsensical, and fittingly
‘natural’, end to a charming recital.

This recital can be heard for one month following the performance on BBC iPlayer.

Claire Seymour

Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Franz Schubert – ‘Die Forelle’ D550, ‘Die Vˆgel’ D691, ‘Der Alpenj‰ger’
D588; FaurÈ – ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ Op.1 No.1; Saint-SaÎns – ‘La
coccinelle’; Massenet – ‘La mort de la cigale’; Ravel –Histoires naturelles; Vernon Duke – Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19th February 2018.

image_description=Ashley Riches and James Middleton at Wigmore Hall
product_title=Ashley Riches and James Middleton at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Ashley Riches

Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt