Love Songs: Temple Song Series

Not a solo vocalist, but rather four young prize winners – a soprano and
mezzo soprano, a tenor and a baritone – serenaded us, and each other,
during this recital of Romantic lieder, for solo and ensemble voices, in
Temple Church.

When Brahms sent the manuscript of his first book of l‰ndler-like Liedeslieder Walzer Op.52 to his publisher Simrock, in 1869, he
described the set of eighteen songs for four voices and piano four hands as Hausmusik. Perhaps an expression of his growing passion for Robert
and Clara Schumann’s third daughter, Julie, the songs, when still in
manuscript form, would have been first performed at domestic gatherings in
Clara’s house in Baden-Baden, during the summer of the preceding year.
Gemma Summerfield, Fleur Barron, James Way and Julien van Mellaerts were
not exactly gathered around Julius Drake and Stacey Bartsch, seated at the
Steinway positioned where the Round Church meets the nave, but they made a
potentially intimate group.

Unfortunately, the acoustic of this medieval/Gothic revival church does not
naturally lend itself to multitudinous melodising, especially when a
quartet of vibrato-heavy operatic voices does battle with the fan of the
underfloor heating system, as was the case during the first seven of the Liedeslieder Walzer on this occasion. Initially, at least, it was
quite difficult to take in the resonant richness of the quartet as they
launched with zeal into the quasi-Schubertian vigour of the waltzes, with
their boisterous swinging cross-rhythms and vivacious romantic dialogues.

But, the sixth waltz, ‘Ein kleiner, h¸bscher Vogel’ (A pretty little bird),
more lightly traversed diverse moods, and Gemma Summerfield’s subsequent
rendition of ‘Wohl schˆn bewandt’ (All seemed rosy) offered a vocal sheen
and sensitivity of expression which were cleansing. The ensemble timbre was
particularly tender in ‘Wenn so lind dein Auge mir’ (When you gaze at me so
tenderly), while ‘Ein dunkler Schacht ist Liebe’ (Love is a dark pit)
pushed forward with fitting urgency. James Way impressed in ‘Nicht wandle,
mein Licht’ (Do not wander, my love), singing with yearning tenderness but
with sufficient focus and weight to avoid over-sweet sentimentality, and
making much more of the words than was possible in the ensembles.

The original publication described the vocal/chorus parts as ‘optional’,
and Brahms’s piano parts are characteristically rich in detail and nuance.
The two pianists brought as much variety as they could to the tripping lilt
and sway, and did not let a detail pass them by, as when Drake’s low, dark
bass line at the start of, ‘Die gr¸ne Hopfenranke’, gently evoked the
“green tendrils of the vine” that “Creep low along the ground”. In the
concluding ‘Es bebet das Gestr‰uche’ the piano staccatos wryly mimicked the
trembling foliage which itself embodies the shudders of the poet’s heart
when he thinks of his beloved.

It’s no doubt a matter of personal taste, but despite the variety of poetic
moods, I found the incessant triple-time meter – and Brahms is not averse
to an oom-pah-pah – and rich vocal blend somewhat relentless: rather as if
one had over-indulged on Sachertorte with hefty dollops of Schlagobers. It
doesn’t help that the texts, translations by poet and philosopher Georg
Friedrich Daumer of East European folk poems, are rather undistinguished.

The fifteen songs of Brahms’s Neue Liebeslieder Walzer
Op.65 (1875), which closed the concert, are however both more light-footed
and more sincere of sentiment; there is less ebullient hopefulness and good
cheer, and more doubt and disenchantment – perhaps expressive of Brahms’s
anguish when his beloved Julie married an Italian nobleman, Count Marmonto
Di Radicati, just a few days after the completion of the Op.52 set.

Here, too, one finds greater diversity of texture with many of the songs
being written for solo voice or duet, and more imaginative engagement with
the texts in the piano accompaniments. Drake and Bartsch swirled eerily at
the start of ‘Finstere Schatten der Nacht’ (Sinister shadows of the night)
and their enthusiastic pounding in the Russian-Polish dance song, ‘Vom
Gebirge, Well auf Well’ (From the mountains, wave upon wave) was matched by
the quartet’s exuberance: as if everyone had downed a few shots of vodka
during the interval.

The soprano has the lion’s share of the solos, and if an overly wide
vibrato weakened the focus of the line in ‘An jeder Hand die Finger’ (I had
adorned the fingers), then Summerfield soared with simple grace through
‘Rosen steckt mir an die Mutter’ (My mother pins roses on me). She
valiantly attempted to make a narrative of ‘Alles, alles in den Wind’
(Every single thing you say to me), frowning indignantly at Way during his
ardent rendition of the preceding ‘Ich kose s¸fl mit der und der’ (I sweetly
caress this girl and that). Jan van Mellaerts displayed strong rhetorical
power in ‘Ihr schwarzen Augen’ (You, jet-black eyes) and Fleur Barron was
similarly adept at slipping into different personae, the sensuous layers of
her mezzo bringing expressive depth to ‘Wahre, wahre deinen Sohn’ (Protect,
protect your son). The soprano-alto duet, ‘Nein, Geliebter, stezte dich’
(No, beloved, do no sit), was one of the evening’s highpoints, the
beautifully reverent tone enhanced by Drake’s soft low pedal and the
delicately running inner lines of the accompaniment.

In the final song of Brahms Op.65 set, the poet-narrator of Goethe’s ‘Nun,
ihr Musen, genug!’ (the only text not by Daumer) dejectedly banishes the
Muses which have failed him in his quest to expressive the anguish of
love-sickness. The Muse certainly didn’t desert Robert Schumann when he
composed his Spanische Liebeslieder Op.138 (1949), the two books
of which framed the interval. Schumann sets texts from the German poet and
philologist Emanuel von Geibel’s Volkslieder und Romanzen der Spanier, translations of songs and
poems by Spanish and Portuguese Renaissance poets, and if there is nothing
that called be termed ‘genuinely Spanish’ about these ten songs then there
are rich colours, occasionally darkened with sombre shadows, toe-tapping
bolero rhythms and guitar-like textures that inject an uplifting spirit.
But, more than that, the songs have a sincerity and naturalness of
expression as conveyed, for example, by the stillness and focus that
Summerfield controlled with such poise at the close of ‘Tief im Herzen
trag’ ich Pein’ (Deep in my heart I bear my grief).

The ladies’ duet, ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’, was ripe with drama and
feeling. Van Mellaerts sang the romance, ‘Flutenreicher Ebro’ (Surging
River Ebro), as he strolled amidst the audience seated in the nave, and if
the text that he sang in the second stanza bore little resemblance to that
printed in the programme, then his delicate pianissimo in the subsequent
stanza and the earnest heightening of the plea, ‘Fragt sie, fragt sie’ (Ask
her, ask her), were plentiful compensation for the lapse of memory. The
singers indulged in some quasi-operatic playfulness in ‘Blaue Augen had das
M‰dchen’ (The girl has blue eyes), the urbane charm of Way and van
Mellaerts eventually winning over the disdainful Barron.

And, there was more fun and ‘theatre’ at the close, in an encore which
reprised one of the Brahms waltzes which had opened the concert, but
reinterpreted, with more unbridled spice and glee. Here, at last, we could
imagine the depth of Brahms’s infatuation with Julie that led him to texts
that both captured and inflamed his dreams – “Tell me, maiden dearest, who
has with your glances roused these wild ardours in this cool breast of
mine, will you not soften your heart?” – and also the exquisite blend of
pleasure and pain that those song-filled evenings in the Schumanns’ salon
must have brought him.

Claire Seymour

Gemma Summerfield (soprano), Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), James Way
(tenor), Julien van Mellaerts (baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Stacey
Bartsch (piano).

Brahms – Liebeslieder Walzer Op.52; Schumann – Spanische Liebeslieder Op.138; Brahms – Neue Liebeslieder Walzer Op.65

Temple Church, London; Thursday 14th February 2019.

product_title=Love Songs: Temple Song Series, Temple Church
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: In rehearsal – Gemma Summerfield, Fleur Barron, James Way and Julien van Mellaerts accompanied by Julius Drake and Stacey Bartsch.