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S & H Recital Review

 Schumann, Brahms, Honegger, Duparc, Ibert, (arr.) Vignoles: Sarah Walker, Jonathan Lemalu, Roger Vignoles, St. John’s Smith Square, 29th June. (ME)

This tremendously enjoyable recital provided the chance to hear two singers at what night be termed opposite ends of their careers; Walker must surely be into the last decade of hers, although her skill as a recitalist remains undiminished, and Lemalu is in the first few years of what will surely be a great one. This is the third time this season that I have heard this 26 – year old bass – baritone, and I am even more convinced that he will have the staying power and versatility to equal his prodigious natural gifts. This well – planned recital also allowed us to hear once again the ideally sympathetic accompaniment of Vignoles, although it must have been an unfamiliar experience for him to look out onto a hall only about one – third full.

They began with a group of Schumann duets and songs, beautifully balanced between the lighthearted and the sombre. ‘Schon Blümelein’ just hit that perfect note of slight naughtiness in ‘Hat’s Blümlein sich geneiget / Mit Freuden hin und her,’ with both singers performing with delicacy and wit. Walker gave a superb rendition of the rather macabre ‘Die Kartenlegerin,’ bringing to grim life every nuance of the tedious reality of the narrator’s existence and rising to dramatic heights at ‘Nein, die Karten lugen nicht.’

Lemalu had his solo chance to shine with ‘Ständchen,’ and what an ambitious choice that was; with its lilting, rolling accompaniment, played by Vignoles with such skill and grace, and its fervent phrases, it’s a wonderful song, but one that places great demands on the singer, and although Lemalu did not quite rise to the ecstatic high note at the end of ‘..drum eil’ auch du’ he still managed to fill lines like ‘Liebchen, o komm in die stille Nacht!’ with real passion. His tone is rich and extremely beautiful, and his stage manner is very pleasing, with the proper mixture of humility and confidence; my only concern, from here and elsewhere in the recital, is that he should not be tempted to do too much; the night before this concert he had been onstage as Gianni Schicchi, with three earlier performances in the week, and the jump from Italian opera to Lieder within 24 hours cannot be an easy one. However, I’m sure the break in the voice at ‘du’ here was almost entirely down to nerves, and suspect that Lemalu senior, very much in evidence in the audience, will be able to assist in keeping the hordes of promoters at bay – for hordes there are, and will be.

In ‘Der Schatzgräber,’ his low notes were stunning, recalling Quasthoff in terms of security and sonorousness, but the high ones were not quite perfectly there – a touch of understandable nerves, again, I’m sure. ‘Abends am Strand’ and ‘Unterm Fenster’ showed both singers at their best, with the latter an especial delight in terms of their comic skills and timing. The Brahms group were similarly fine, with the solemn ‘Die Nonne und der Ritter’ demonstrating Walker’s mastery of legato and ‘Der Jäger und sein Leibchen’ providing a lusty end to the first half.

Honegger’s ‘Saluste du Bartas’ began the recital’s second part, superbly sung and played, with the fourth song, ‘La promenade’ showing how Walker still has the gift of evoking such things as the atmosphere of a sultry summer’s day. Duparc’s ‘La fuite’ is not often performed in London, and it does need that touch of the exotic which is the preserve of very few singers, but Walker and Lemalu managed it, drawing loud ‘Bravos’ for their wonderful singing of the final ‘Fuyons! fuyons!’ which was sung entirely with their backs to the audience.

Ibert’s ‘Quatre chansons de Don Quichotte’ found Lemalu in superb form; perhaps he had shed his nerves by now, or maybe this music is just perfect for his voice, but he sang them as finely as I’ve ever heard them sung, rising to the demanding ‘Toujours proche et toujours lointaine’ of the second part, and giving a most moving account of the final ‘Chanson de la mort…’ with its sighing conclusion; his French is excellent, too, with that rare bite in the enunciation. Lemalu had to turn away to wipe his eyes as the audience enthusiastically applauded his singing of this; possibly moved by his own performance, or just glad that he could make his parents so proud – both reactions entirely proper in the circumstances.

The recital proper ended with four beautiful arrangements of traditional songs, set with elegance and simplicity by Roger Vignoles. Lemalu began with ‘Afton Water,’ singing with such directness and sincerity that he could not fail to move; his phrasing, his lovely, poetic diction in the refrain ‘Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream’ could not help but bring Bryn Terfel to mind, and that cannot be other than a compliment to so young a man at such an early stage of his career. One of those almost-tangible silences took us smoothly into Sarah Walker’s intense ‘Early One Morning,’ where she sang those hackneyed words as though they had just been written, and then we had Lemalu’s tremendous ‘Lowlands’ and finally a most touching ‘The Wind and the Rain’ from Walker.

A beautifully sung ‘Die Meere’ formed their envoi, preceded by a rendition of Arne’s ‘Married to a Mermaid’ which even I enjoyed – Lemalu really let rip with this one, singing lines like ‘Be as happy as you can with your wife, young man, at the bottom of the deep blue sea’ with genuine relish, and what can one say about Sarah Walker’s ‘Rule Britannia?’ This was a superb recital, giving us the unusual combination of a great and established artist, a very young singer who is already revealing astonishing gifts, and of course accompanying of the very highest calibre. That it all took place in the crystalline acoustic, convivial atmosphere and personal warmth of this marvellous place was an added delight, and I only hope that many more lovers of song can be (at least temporarily) seduced away from the place at no. 36…W1 to hear music – making such as this.


Melanie Eskenazi

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