Since its foundation in 1996, The Samling Institute for Young Artists has supported the careers of some 350 singers and musicians. Its 25th birthday was celebrated at Wigmore Hall by six Samling Artists, past and present, in a recital in which a diverse programme of English twentieth-century song was complemented by the premiere of a newly commissioned duet song-cycle by Jonathan Dove, Man, Woman, Child.
Four of Benjamin Britten’s folksong arrangements made for a fitting start to the recital, allowing each of the four singers to capture the distinctive character of a particular song, and also encouraging reflections on the relationship between folk and art song. Or, perhaps that should be the ‘marriage’ of the two, for in his use of folksong – in his own compositions and in these arrangements – Britten sought to avoid what he considered the narrow-minded approach adopted by the generation which preceded him, writing in 1942 upon leaving the US to return to his homeland: ‘Three years ago it seemed to me that a self-conscious wave of musical nationalism was sweeping this country, and I was sorry to see it … now, more than ever, nationalism is an anachronistic irrelevance.’ Instead, as Eric Roseberry explained – in a chapter entitled ‘Old songs in new contexts’ in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten – Britten’s songs are removed from ‘the kind of ‘Englishness’ that may be associated with the Edwardian pomp and pageantry of Elgar, or later characterized in the watery meadows and ‘gaffers on the green’ modal meanderings and rustic frolics of the school of English folklorists. Britten’s was altogether a sharper, less complacent, more quizzical, personally sensitive ‘national’ temperament, alert to the expression of his chosen texts, both verbal and musical’.
This blending of the new and old, of the national and the international is evident in ‘The trees they grow so high’, with its unaccompanied opening and subsequent shift from harmonic simplicity to telling dissonance. Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately’s performance was confident and engaging, the vocal line clear, enriched with a shine, and supported by pianist Ian Tindale’s flexible, colourful accompaniment. Soprano Alexandra Lowe sang ‘O Waly, Waly’ with unaffected lyricism which was complemented by the piano’s more searching inter-stanza developments, while bass William Thomas’s droll rendition of the infamous encounter between a weaver and a young maid in ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew’, made yet more wry by Tindale’s askew syncopations, was a delight – and drew warm smiles from his fellow performers. It fell to the New Zealand-Tongan tenor Filipe Manu to tackle ‘The Salley Gardens’ and his reading was quite expansive and rather Italianate in tone, though full of feeling.
This expressive intensity and tonal richness also characterised Manu’s performance of four songs from Gerald Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation, which sets ten poems by Thomas Hardy. ‘Budmouth Dears’ was purposeful in spirit – aptly so, for Finzi ‘labels’ it a ‘storming march’ – and Tindale’s dancing quavers were crisply articulated but sensitively shaped. Manu rose resoundingly to the stanza-closing peaks, and if the approach was rather ‘operatic’, his bright tone captured the bravura and pride of the soldiers who venture from their camp above the town to banter with the flirtatious young lasses who stroll beside Budmouth Beach. A little more easefulness, and less earnestness, would have enabled Finzi’s fluid, relaxed rhythms to convey the wistfulness and ambiguity of ‘Her Temple’, in which Hardy, characteristically, fuses past, present and future in a timeless moment; similarly, in ‘The Sigh’ Manu strove, I felt, to characterise the poet-speaker in a more forceful manner than the unassuming quality of the poetic and melodic voice of the song invites, though with the switch to the major mode in the final verse, Manu’s sweet pianissimo, supported by Tindale’s gently syncopated lilt, magically captured the mood of reminiscence and poignant regret. ‘Transformations’ closed with persuasive strength and sonority – a comforting celebration of the regeneration that time can bring.
There was more English wistfulness in the form of two songs from Roger Quilter’s Seven Elizabethan Lyrics Op.12. in which Alexandra Lowe was accompanied by pianist James Baillieu. ‘Weep you no more’ was beautifully direct and clear, sung by Lowe with judiciously sparing vibrato and a lovely fresh tone. In ‘The Faithless Shepherdess’, the counterpoint within the piano part was discerningly responsive to the restlessly unfolding vocal melody, and Baillieu captured the Schumann-esque urgency of the piano postlude.
Manu joined Lowe and Baillieu for a charming account of Quilter’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’, from Five Shakespeare Songs Op.23. The trio had closed the first half of the recital with the premiere of new duet song-cycle by Jonathan Dove, Man, Woman, Child, which sets texts by the Australian poet Judith Wright whose work was brought to Dove’s attention by Karon Wright, the artistic and executive director of Samling Institute. Dove has described the process of composition of the cycle, explaining that he sought a narrative to link the two voices: ‘Gradually a story emerged of a man, coming home from war, who meets a woman in a wine bar: it ends with the voice of the child that emerges from this union.’ It was a pity that the printed programme did not include the texts of Wright’s poems alongside the usual biographical information, but Lowe and Manu created a persuasive sequence. ‘Pain’ began with an almost Stravinsky-like rhythmic vigour, the piano’s pounding displacements matching the anger in Manu’s voice, rhetorical outbursts met by crunching dissonances. A jazzy rumble infused ‘Song in a Wine Bar’, setting off the glossiness of Lowe’s soprano as she strolled flouncily across the Wigmore Hall platform, teasing Baillieu and twirling with Manu – her glamorous feathered frock came into its own!
The simple melody of ‘Song’ was sung with soft sweetness by Manu, but its tender reflectiveness was swept aside by the rippling energy of ‘Woman’s Song’, the piano’s fluctuating harmonies seeming to strive towards Lowe’s ecstatic climaxes. In several of these songs Dove employs ostinato patterns in the accompaniment, and such repetitive motifs recurred in the final song ‘Stars’. The opening, though, was delicately translucent, as the piano etched a night sky slowly coming into being. Lowe’s soprano had a Straussian sheen, which gained added warmth when joined by Manu’s eloquent tenor. As with all first performances, it was difficult to take in all the details in one hearing, but Dove’s score communicated with immediacy, and evidently gave the performers here much enjoyment. I hope that we get an opportunity to hear Man, Woman, Child again soon.
Lowe performed the closing item of the recital, ‘Bird Songs at Eventide’ by Eric Coates, the lyrics of which were written by Royden Barrie, the pen name of Rodney Bennett, father of Richard Rodney Bennett. It was thus fitting that Coates’ charming setting was preceded by Richard Rodney Bennett’s Songs before Sleep which William Thomas, who’d had a long wait for his ‘solo spot’, performed with a potent blend of seriousness and insouciance, lyricism and wit coming together perfectly. ‘The Mouse and the Bumblebee’ made for a lively, playful start, ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ had a sparkle in his eye, while ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ was magical, the sense of wonder tinged with unease. Tindale’s steady crotchets underpinned the bleak sentiments of the solitary poet-speaker in ‘As I walked by myself’, Thomas’s bass somehow retaining an essential buoyancy while suggesting cavernous darkness. ‘There was an Old Woman’ was a dashing medley – an elegant knees-up, if such a thing can exist!
Kitty Whately had opened the recital, and it was her performances of songs by Vaughan Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy and Margaret Bonds that, for me, were the evening’s highlights. Whately’s mezzo-soprano has evident power but she uses it with poise and musical acumen. Her diction was excellent in Vaughan Williams’ Four Last Songs. The recitative-like vocal lines of ‘Procis’ and ‘Menelaus’ were confidently shaped above the piano’s dense textures, while ‘Tired’, in which the narrow compass of the vocal line was complemented by the piano’s weary tread, displayed Whately’s highly coloured lower register. The passion of ‘Eyes, Hand and Heart’ was controlled, the simplicity a virtue. ‘Ophelia’s Song’ was one of the first works that Elizabeth Maconchy composed, when she was a student in 1924. The song was inspired by Ophelia’s speech to Polonius, ‘There is rosemary, that’s for remembrance – pray you love, remember’, and Whatley and Baillieu captured its haunting lyricism and Finzi-esque pathos, the musical calm belying the imminent madness. Inner distress was hinted at, though, by the intensity that seemed to well up through the piano’s full, homophonic chords and the fluctuating freedom of the metre which enhanced the sad quietude of the syllabic, conjunct vocal line.
The African American composer Margaret Bonds’ ‘What Lips my Lips have Kissed’ sets a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay: it was a revelation to me – the gentle, unresolved dissonances and shifting meter reflecting the restless yearnings of memory. Baillieu unravelled the complexities of the piano part with lucidity. Whately’s climactic rise potently conveyed the pain which afflicts the poet-speaker, ‘For unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.’ This was truly beautiful singing.
The four singers came together for a celebratory encore: Ivor Novello’s ‘I Can Give You the Starlight’. On this occasion, they certainly had.
Alexandra Lowe (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Filipe Manu (tenor), William Thomas (bass), James Baillieu & Ian Tindale (piano)
Britten – ‘The trees they grow so high’, ‘The Salley Gardens’, ‘O Waly, Waly’, ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’; Vaughan Williams – 4 Last Songs; Jonathan Dove – Man, Woman, Child (world première); Finzi – A Young Man’s Exhortation Op.14 (‘Budmouth Dears’, ‘Her Temple’, ‘The Sigh’, ‘Transformations’); Quilter – Seven Elizabethan Lyrics Op.12 (‘Weep you no more’, ‘The Faithless Shepherdess’), 5 Shakespeare Songs (set 2) Op.23 (‘It was a lover and his lass’); Elizabeth Maconchy – ‘Ophelia’s Song’; Margaret Bonds – ‘What Lips My Lips Have Kissed’, Richard Rodney Bennett – ‘Songs before Sleep’; Eric Coates – ‘Bird songs at eventide’; Ivor Novello – ‘I Can Give You the Starlight’.
Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 7th November 2021.
AVOVE: Alexandra Lowe, Kitty Whately, Filipe Manu (top, l. to r.), William Thomas, Ian Tindale, James Baillieu (bottom, l. to r.)