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S & H Concert Review

Purcell, Britten, Finzi and other English composers: Lisa Milne, Ian Bostridge, Christopher Maltman, Graham Johnson. Wigmore Hall, 30th September. (ME)


‘Fascinating programme, tonight,’ opined the man behind me – then promptly proceeded to fall asleep after the second song, so that much of the evening was accompanied by his snore obbligato. Perhaps this really was a soporific evening, but on the face of it, it should not have been; the programme was a varied collection of songs by the greatest English composers, sung by some of today’s most highly reputed recitalists, but the feeling one was left with was that this is the sort of thing that gets English song a bad name.

We began with Ian Bostridge and Christopher Maltman in Britten’s realization of Purcell’s ‘I Spy Celia,’ a ‘delightful’ way to commence a recital, and that’s what it was. It was rather like hearing Bostridge Major and Maltman Minor, bashfully essaying their trial piece for the Junior Choir: I admit to having been ‘brought up’ on the, shall we say, rather more lubricious Purcellian style of singers like Nigel Rogers, but this coyness was just too much – or rather, too little. A line such as ‘I am redder, then I please her’ refers to something other than assistance with a skipping rope or Matron’s instructions as to how to tie a ribbon, but you’d hardly have known it.

Lisa Milne’s ‘Fairest Isle’ was almost equally uncomfortable: I don’t know what has become of this soprano’s diction, but her habit of omitting the final letter, sometimes even syllable, of many words is, to say the least, worrying. Fortunately, her ‘Mad Bess’ gave a much better impression of her talent, being suitably dramatic and much assisted by Graham Johnson’s vivid accompaniment. Christopher Maltman gave a suitably solemn account of Warlock’s ‘The Bayley Beareth the Bell Away,’ but I was left wondering, why this song, when there is so much of Warlock that is so much more elegant and incisive? The first half ended with Finzi’s setting of Shakespeare songs, ‘Let Us Garlands Bring,’ with Maltman particularly successful in the ‘Twelfth Night’ songs.

The second half began with a motley collection of English songs; I had expected ‘I Will Go with My Father A – Ploughing’ to be taken by Bostridge, but this group was Milne’s, and I have to say that this song just sounded weird as sung by her; some singers can make such sentiments convincing, and some can’t. Songs by Bridge and Ireland fared much better, but ‘She Moved Thro’ The Fair’ was, sadly, unmoving, and both this and Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ were affected by unfortunate verbal slips, such as ‘went’ for ‘moved,’ softly’ for ‘dead’ and ‘moon’ for ‘earth.’ Well, one might paraphrase Shakespeare and say that the singer, like the lover, has days when (s) he is ‘neither sick nor well.’

And so to the evening’s major work, Britten’s ‘Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo’ which had its premiere at the Wigmore Hall very nearly exactly sixty years ago. It was, of course, a nice idea to set this work in its context, and such a masterpiece is always worth hearing, but I have to say that Bostridge is not the ideal tenor for it, whatever ‘beyond praise’ eulogies may be penned by those who judge such things by extra-musical considerations. I’m not at all clear as to what the introductory notes intended to convey by a remark like ‘…what a Pandora’s box of tricks did their love unlock’ (about the relationship of Britten and Pears) since when Pandora opened the box she set free all the ills which were to beset mankind, with only Hope left inside, and one can hardly number Britten’s works amongst the ills of the world – however, the same writer does make clear that the core of this work concerns ‘love from one man to another.’

Love of any kind is not much highlighted in Bostridge’s cerebral, highly impassioned in terms of vocal gesture, beautiful sounding but ultimately rather lazy interpretation, and the sheer enrapturing ecstasy, the ear – ravishing expressiveness found in these words and this music by Pears and Rolfe Johnson on disc, and by Ainsley in a recent ‘Voices’ broadcast, were all, to my ears, missing here. Bostridge’s Italian is not the greatest, but that is not as important as the fact that he leaves one entirely unmoved at moments which should involve the listener at every level. There were some wonderful things here, mainly in ‘Tu sa’ ch’I, Signor mio, and ‘Rendete a gli occhi miei,’ but the ultimate feeling was of detachment, and what should have been nobility and grandeur interspersed with a slight edge of hysteria in ‘Spirto ben nato’ was ‘merely’ pleasant and accurate singing. I’m sure that, come tomorrow, all the broadsheets will be full of foam – flecked encomia, but there you have it; one can’t roll out of the Wigmore in a state of bliss after each and every concert.


Melanie Eskenazi

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