Gallery of Memories: Mary Bevan & Anna Tilbrook at the Oxford International Song Festival

There was a veritable feast of new music at this year’s Oxford International Song Festival, much of it commissioned by the Festival itself.  Gallery of Memories, a song cycle by Roxanna Panufnik, was co-commissioned with the Presteigne Festival, where it was premiered in August this year by soprano Zoe Drummond and pianist Chris Hopkins.  It received its second performance at the heart of this well-attended lunchtime recital by soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Anna Tilbrook.

Panufnik has set four poems by Jessica Duchen, which she describes as forming a ‘highly evocative narrative’ about ‘preserving something that’s otherwise gone forever, which paintings, poetry and music can all achieve’.  The cycle’s protagonist is in an art gallery, where four paintings that she encounters transport her to a different time and place, reconnecting her with a past relationship.  She remembers and re-experiences love’s awakening (‘Raindrop Prelude’), its dangers (‘Playing with Fire’) and its fracturing (‘Tarantella’), before finally her past memories are transfigured into an idealised image (‘Neptune’).  The four poems are woven together by the protagonist’s inner thoughts as she moves between the paintings, and prefaced by her decision to depart from the path set by the gallery’s curator and “slide aside in search of memory”: “If space is time, then let me flee the years/ And step through.”  

The texts present a sort of strolling stream-of-consciousness, the eclectic verbal and visual imagery fused by a musical fabric which complements the narrative with its own aural and pictorial images. The piano’s opening waves and arcs support the protagonist’s initial reflections, the angularity of the vocal line – lyrically and lucidly sculpted by Mary Bevan – perhaps reflecting her decision to let the gallery lead her “down other lanes – set free/ Within a frame”.  Waves disperse and distil into a single note which trickles into ‘Raindrop Prelude’.  Here, the regularity of Tilbrook’s carefully placed ostinato figures and the often quite restrained range of the vocal line created a feeling of intimacy, which was enhanced by the tender tone of Bevan’s soprano.  Panufnik’s warm harmonies at the close conveyed the hopefulness of a past love reborn.

As the inter-poem texts link the protagonist’s responses to the four paintings and create a sense of time passing, so the piano’s accompaniment generates the forward movement of the protagonist’s progress through the gallery and the development of her memories.  At the close of the first song, Tilbrook’s gently falling raindrops evolved into repetitive figures that became, in ‘Playing with Fire’, flickering, circling motifs, creating a restless energy which complemented Bevan’s staccato articulation.  Images of flaming torches being kept ceaselessly aloft forged into a “gleaming flare”, a flash of colour and animation fuelling the soaring vocal line and infusing warmth into the expanding phrases and melismatic reflections on the “wonder” of the flames.

Despite the longing for the fire to stay alight, “Please – just a little while longer”, it is extinguished, and half-spoken, sparsely accompanied questioning leads into ‘Tarantella’, the unpredictable, frenzied dancing of which evokes the urgency and confusion of running away.  Bevan’s cast-iron technique enabled her to enunciate the rapid-fire text with precision and polish, her soprano incisive and crisp as she whipped through Duchen’s tongue-twisting imagery:

Secret insignia
Swallow Rebibbia,
Lunch in Italian
Frosted with gold,
Sung for the Spanish,
Considered a marriage,
Escape in Italian,
Nothing is told.

It was almost a relief when the cascading chain of incongruous verbal fragments came to rest, as, through Tilbrook’s gentle circling motifs, the raindrops re-emerged, the protagonist’s thoughts drifting back to a time when the beloved spoke of “snorkel[ling] out to sea/ When all is over, shrouded in the waves,/ And liberated, buoyant”, the assuaging water presaging the final song, ‘Neptune’. 

Deep surges swelled through Tilbrook’s rocking figures, embodying the protagonist’s vision, “I conjure him, a creature of the sea”.  In this song, Bevan’s control and crafting of the extended phrases and soaring lyricism was exemplary, the vocal waves complemented by the piano’s upward-reaching ripples.  In the closing stanza, as the idealised sea-god’s footsteps are washed from the sand by the salty lapping, so “His beauty, pressed upon forgiving air/ Shall ever hold, if I should seek him there”. Bevan’s shining radiance confirmed the affirmative image of eternity.  The soprano’s shaping of the last ‘post-poem-painting’ commentary was superbly nuanced and poised.  Reflecting the text’s questioning tone, “And you?/  Are you still there?”,  the phrases repeatedly strove upwards then delicately drooped, far above the piano’s low ostinato down in the deep.

Bevan and Tilbrook framed Gallery of Memories with French mélodie of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  That she has an insightful understanding of, and intuitive feeling for, the highly perfumed sensibility of this repertoire has been confirmed by Bevan’s recent disc, Visions Illuminées, and her debut recital recording, Voyages, both with pianist Joseph Middleton.  Her performances at the start of the concert of songs by Marguerite Canal (1890-1978), Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (1858-1937) and Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) were characterised by unwavering vocal poise and a nuanced sensitivity to the text which conveyed sincerity and emotional engagement.

Writing in 1919, Canal described the way she composed mélodie: ‘I read and re-read the verses several times over, in hushed tones, and the verses become lines, then the lines become sounds which sing in me, vague at first, then more precise.’  One imagines that her words might be a fitting account of Bevan’s own approach to learning and performing these songs.  In the Debussy-influenced ‘Les Roses de Saadi’, which Canal composed in 1908 when she was just eighteen, the soprano’s tone was beautifully douce, yet warm, creating a wonderful freshness as Tilbrook’s exotically coloured ripples rose intoxicatingly.  Etching the vocal peak with silvery clarity at the close, Bevan evoked the erotic excitement that swells through Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s symbolist imagery.  ‘Songe’ (Dream) by Bonis was deliciously sotto voce, hinting at other, enchanted, erotic worlds, while the vocal line in Boulanger’s ‘Soleils Couchants’ (Sunsets, 1909) was true and focused, the text carefully placed above Tilbrook’s murmurings, fluid modulations increasing the lyric intensity and leading to an impassioned image of “Fantômes vermeils” (Roseate ghosts) that drift endlessly.

The recital concluded with Gabriel Fauré’s La bonne chanson (1894), the song cycle setting nine poems by Verlaine which he presented as a love letter to Emma Bardac (who later married Debussy).  Bevan and Tilbrook took us on a beguiling journey through Fauré’s narrative (he re-ordered the poems that he selected from the 21 that form Verlaine’s eponymous collection), finding contrasts and juxtapositions within the prevailingly optimistic tone. 

The idealistic meditations on the beloved’s name in ‘Une Sainte en son auréole’ (A saint in her halo) unfolded with simplicity and lightness, while the piano’s arching sextuplets in ‘Puisque l’aube grandit’ (Since day is breaking) were wonderfully delicate despite their exuberance, hinting at the dawning of new feelings.  Bevan’s vibrato was judiciously slight, enough to enrich but never affecting the intonation, allowing her to spin silkily even phrases.  ‘La lune blanche’ (The white moon) had a lovely triplet lilt, again communicating joy in growing passions.   Bevan’s contrasting dynamics responded to the changing colours of both music and language, and the sweetness of the final line, “C’est l’heure exquise”, was indeed exquisite, anticipating the concluding declaration of shared love in ‘J’allais par des chemins perfidies’ (I walked along treacherous ways).  The soprano made us feel the powerful shift at the close of ‘J’ai presque peur’ (I am almost afraid), when the change of form of address, “Qui je vous aime, que je t’aime!”, marks a new and almost frightening intimacy.  The concluding songs look forward to future married life, the agile effervescent of ‘N’est ce pas?’ (Is it not so) leading to an exultant ‘L’hiver a cesse’ (Winter is over), Tilbrook’s pianissimo etchings as sharply drawn as cracking ice, warmth gradually flooding in as Bevan’s full, round tone conveyed the poet-speaker’s fulfilment.

The final address to the beloved is to one “que décore/ Cette fantaisie et cette raison!” (graced with imagination and good sense!).  One might say the same of Bevan and Tilbrook whose performance married artistry and musical intelligence.

Claire Seymour

Mary Bevan (soprano), Anna Tilbrook (piano)

Marguerite Canal (1890-1978) – ‘Les Roses de Saadi’; Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (1858-1937) – ‘Songe’; Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) – ‘Soleils couchants’; Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) – Gallery of Memories; Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) – La bonne chanson Op.61

Holywell Music Room, Oxford; Friday 27th October 2023.

ABOVE: Anna Tilbrook and Mary Bevan