Visions of Childhood: April Fredrick and the English Symphony Orchestra

“Let’s not lose our way
in this solitude.” (‘September’, from Vier Letzte Lieder)

The last work that American-born, UK-domiciled soprano April Fredrick performed before the March 2020 coronavirus lockdown was Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.  And, it was Strauss’s four songs of farewell, fulfilment and the fragility of human life that marked April’s return to public music-making, when she joined the English Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Kenneth Woods at Wyastone Concert Hall in Monmouth in July to record a performance that was broadcast on ESO’s YouTube channel in September last year.  This month she has released a disc with the orchestra, Visions of Childhood, which places Strauss’s songs alongside musical explorations of childhood by Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck and Schubert, works which formed the ESO’s second streamed concert the following month.

April, who has been the ESO’s Affiliate Artist for several years, was to have performed Vier Letzte Lieder with the ESO at Malvern Priory in June 2020 but, she tells me, one week in March saw her entire concert diary wiped out.  A Mahler festival in Colorado at which she was scheduled to sing Mahler’s Second Symphony; her first performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Bridgewater Hall: these and many more planned performances disappeared.  More than that, April herself became ill with what she presumes was Covid, and April remembers watching the thermometer rise, and rise, that first night: “I recall thinking, ‘This could be it.’  It wasn’t likely, at my age, but I did find myself thinking about my parents, and prayer.”  She had intense fatigue for about a month, and while fortunately she didn’t experience any lung- and breathing-related symptoms, she found over the coming months that she would suddenly and without warning ‘hit a wall’ and feel that same exhaustion again.

April’s observations in the CD liner booklet reveal something of the joy, release and sheer sense of privilege that singing Strauss’s songs gave her:

The fatigue, which is one of the virus’ symptoms was like nothing I’d experienced, giving a new dimension to the multiple uses in the cycle of the wonderful German adjective ‘müde’ (‘tired, weary, worn out’).  But I also never forget the incredible, almost euphoric joy I felt the first time I walked out of my front door after my quarantine – what an unthinkable privilege to be well and free to move about again.  A stark encounter with mortality, weariness, euphoria, and ‘weiter, stille Friede’ (wide, still peace): the virus provided me with most curious sort of gift of experience which has forever stamped and deepened my understanding of this work.

‘Transformation and decay’ are at the heart of Strauss’s songs, and I remark that the songs seem to me to bring mortality and beauty into a strange proximity, one which brings to mind Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video ‘Still Life’: a film of the gradual decomposition of a bowl of fruit which reflects on the passage of time, the natural processes of life and, in intimating that from ashes comes new life, regeneration.  April immediately mentions the artist Fiona Fouhy, whose work she admires, and in which she senses the impression of palimpsests accruing over time.  In one series of images Fouhy explores the ‘poetics’ of fungi; while in a series of ‘soil-paintings’, earth recovered from St Pancras burial ground during the 2002-03 excavations, when the re-development of St Pancras International station was underway, was rubbed into the work – “like layers of time,” says April – with the schematic design of the station’s railway tracks overlain.  There is the same sense of the seasons passing, the earth becoming weary, in Strauss’s songs, but April suggests that even as he shocks us, Strauss’s music can be peace-making.

The ESO was one of the first ensembles to be back playing music when restrictions were eased a little, but the logistics were challenging.  How to have seventeen musicians in the same room?  How to set up the mics and mixing?  “The engineer had a right old time trying to get the balance right,” April laughs.  Was she anxious about performing after the five-month break and concerned that her illness may have an adverse effect upon her singing?  “I had been teaching, but singing less, and I was worried whether I would have the stamina needed.  When we recorded Joubert’s Jane Eyre, I had to sing the whole opera three times in four days or less, and I thought I would have to do things differently now, and conserve energy.  It was quite scary to think, ‘I don’t know if I can?’  I had to stand for quite a long time, and I did hit a wall after three-quarters of a day of singing Strauss.  There are always multiple takes, and tiny calibrations of things like tempo.  But, you’re not the producer who’ll be stitching it all together, and it’s fascinating to be presented with the final product.”

This final product is certainly something of which April and her fellow musicians should be proud!  The chamber ensemble in ‘Frühling’ is richly perfumed and as April’s voice soars through Strauss’s long phrases, arching ever higher, there’s a compelling sense of burgeoning growth and freshness.  A lovely softening and retreat at the close of a gleaming ‘September’ elides with resignation into a golden horn solo, as the curtain begins to come down on the year, on a life.  After a wistful, tender solo by ESO leader Zoë Beyers, the poet-speaker’s soul certainly soars unfettered and free in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’.  ‘Im Abendrot’ is poised and comforting, expressing confidence, assurance and peace, whatever ‘hints of death’ linger in the shadows.

April Fredrick (c) Curt Knoke

I ask April where the idea for the ‘programme’ of Visions of Childhood originated, and she explains that ESO’s conductor Kenneth Woods had a strong sense of the arching narrative.  She had previously presented some of the programme – Humperdinck’s ‘Der kleine Sandmann’ (from Hansel and Gretel), Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and ‘Das irdische Leben’ (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) and Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen and ‘Die Forelle’ – with the ESO, in Worcester in 2018.  They performed the Four Last Songs in a chamber arrangement which the Australian composer James Ledger made for Dame Felicity Lott, and which she premiered at the Wigmore Hall with the Nash Ensemble under Bernard Haitink in December 2005; and the other works were arrangements made by Woods himself. 

These reduced-sized versions now had the added benefit of meeting the need for pragmatism.  “It was obvious during the rehearsals that the musicians were so enjoying playing together.  There were just five string-players and this was real chamber music from ‘characterful’ players, as one hears in baroque chamber music.  You can hear the ‘bones’ of the music in the chamber arrangements, there’s a greater intimacy,” suggests April.  “I didn’t miss ‘the numbers’ as the hall amplified the sound which is full and warm.”

Alongside the pathos, there is wit and humour too in the programme.  Last October, for the filmed performance of ‘Der kleine Sandmann’ and ‘Abendsegen’ from Humperdinck’s opera, singing all three vocal parts – “which meant no other singers had to travel” – April donned three different costumes, including plaits for Gretel and a black cap, suspenders and braces for Hansel.  The recording captures the enchantment of the Sandman’s arrival, pizzicato strings twinkling like stars in the night sky, and the flutes and clarinets shimmering like the moon’s rays, piercing through the forest’s canopy.  The Evening Prayer – here, a duet for one – has a lovely flowing tempo, and a vocal directness which both captures the sincerity of the children’s faith and keeps sentimentality at bay.  Woods injects a note of darkness into the orchestral postlude, the pressing weight of the paired pulses and the harmonic digressions reminding us that the witch is watching.  But, magic is restored as the woodwind reach again for the heavens.

“I also love the harmonium in Death and the Maiden,” comments April, “it’s both hilarious and wonderful!  There’s high emotion and a sense of the grotesque, a sort of funeral parlour air – it’s domestic but not ‘polite’.  You get hooked on the drama.  The singer has to wait a long time as the variations unfold, and when we were rehearsing I just drew my knees up and listened: the ferocity of the cello in the fifth variation seemed to rip through me, there was such raw bite.  There’s drama and grief all around you.  With the first feathery steps of the funeral march I was struck by how simple it is.  Schubert shows us that we are in close proximity to danger and death whether we realise it or not.”

The loss of innocence runs through the programme, too.  “In Hansel and Gretel the hungry children end up within eyesight of the witch’s cottage, while in Mahler’s ‘Das irdische Leben’the mother cannot feed her starving child.  But, the siblings are protected and learn a lesson!  The pleading child dies, but his suffering is over.”  In this recording there’s a stabbing, swirling gothic menace in the highly coloured instrumental accompaniment while April contrasts the quasi-even assurances of the mother, albeit destabilised by harmonic diabolism and instrumental clatter and whirring, with the child’s anguished angularity.  One can feel the pain of the hunger pangs in the twisting chromatic contortions and torturous vocal leaps from low to high and back to the depths. 

“And, the wildness of the slaughtering of the lamb episode in ‘Das himmlische Leben’ is like a nightmare!” April remarks.  “We look at heaven through the eyes of a child who imagines a feast, the imaginary world helping to cope with the hunger pains of the real world.  Even the pleasure of the fish swimming freely in the water is juxtaposed with an image of St Peter running up with his net and bait.  Similarly, in a workshop that I ran on ‘Die Forelle’, the children were all rooting for the fish but when the fish was caught it was ‘Oh well, that’s nature.’!”  April captures the wide-eyed wonder that transcends mortal suffering, and it is through the child’s vision that we ‘pause’ and share in their joyful adulation of Saint Peter in heaven who looks benevolently down at earth, Saint Martha ‘who must be the cook’ and Saint Ursula, who laughs at the eleven thousand maidens who dance to the celestial chorus.

During our conversation, April remarks with a wry smile that “death, regret and resurrection, seemed to be the theme of last year”.  In October, as part of Tête à Tête’s autumn series, she gave an R&D performance of a new opera, Her War, which was written for her and trumpeter Simon Desbruslais by composer Edwin Roxburgh.  The libretto by Jonathan Ruffle, the creator of the BBC drama Tommies, is based on the historical testimony of ambulance drivers, nurses, and soldiers returning from active service after WWI, and recreates the 1920 Pension Tribunals where women fought to have their war trauma recognised.  It’s a disturbing exploration of the historical experience of women’s service in the war, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that they experienced.  April describes the work as intense and demanding, both emotionally and physical, and reflects that the inexplicable grief that the women experience is surely similar to what many of the nurses on the Covid-frontline today will experience.

It was obviously incredibly important to April to record Visions of Childhood.  “I was reminded of the imperfections of the recorded medium, but just to be able to come together and rehearse and perform was wonderful.  The disc is a snapshot of a moment in time.  This was the eighth time I’ve performed Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder.  The first time was with the Chester Philharmonic Orchestra in Chester Cathedral, and at the end everyone felt the same, speechless, filled with the incredible spiritual and emotional power of the songs.  But every time I perform the work it will be different, and it will evolve, as I change.”

Visions of Childhood with April Fredrick, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods is out now on Nimbus:

Claire Seymour