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S & H Festival Review

CHELTENHAM INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF MUSIC Recital: Mendelssohn, Ridout, Poulenc, Berkeley, Hahn - John Mark Ainsley, Roger Vignoles, Pittville Pump Room, Sunday July 13th (ME)


The programme for the 2003 Cheltenham Music Festival has exceeded even the high expectations of those who are lucky enough to be familiar with this combination of the perfect venue and the most pleasing programming: astonishingly for a festival lasting a mere seventeen days, there are no fewer than nineteen World Premieres, and beyond that the composers featured this year are Handel, Debussy and Lennox Berkeley (in celebration of the centenary of his birth) with concerts ranging from the ‘something for everyone’ category as exemplified by an evening of ‘arias and songs from the musicals’ performed at the Racecourse by Jose Carreras and Bryn Terfel , to this rather more rarefied recital in the intimate splendour of the Pittville Pump Room.

This was a beautifully planned morning, offering that ideal combination of some of the most familiar songs in the repertoire with some which are only rarely heard, performed by a tenor who is now at the peak of his considerable powers, partnered with elegance by one of our leading accompanists. I would probably line up to hear Mendelssohn’s settings of Heine if they were given by yet another bleater incapable of counting three in a bar, but Ainsley’s performance was perfection: just as Mendelssohn catches that bittersweet and sometimes rather sinister atmosphere which defines these poems, the singing here eschewed any kind of over-sentimental generality and gave the songs as they should be given, with the same kind of loving attention to detail and commitment to the poetry as is usually reserved for, say, Schubert. ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesänges’ is of course the ideal opening to a recital, with its invitation to the pleasures of a world of sensuousness, and it gave ample opportunity for Ainsley to display his lovely, mellifluous tone and remarkable breath control, and for Vignoles to show exactly what it is that makes a great accompanist: so easy to stroll languidly through this music, rippling away under the singer’s lines, but here the accompaniment supported the singer without undue reticence, and the piano provided the partner rather than the mere echo to such phrases as ‘Die Veilchen kichern und kosen’ .

‘Gruss’ is one of those deceptive little songs: on the page, it looks so simple, with its gently rocking melody and lyrical sweetness, but like so much of Mendelssohn it’s not quite so easy as it looks. Over a delicately hesitant piano, the singer opens his heart, full of love – the words are redolent of innocence but the music throbs with passion, and the challenges here are the temptation towards the arch at the ending ‘Sag, ich lass sie grüssen’ and the lure of making a big bow-wow at that crescendo at ‘Weite’ – traps into which singers have fallen many times in my hearing, but not this one. Ainsley’s beautifully coloured, open tone at that crucial word, and his affectionate but not cloying rendition of the final line were both fine beyond praise. It helps tremendously, of course, that his German, like his Italian, is flawless – his French hasn’t been, of late, but that’s something else. The tempestuous ‘Reiselied’ brought this group to a rousing conclusion, both singer and pianist relishing the sardonic ‘in your dreams’ ending.’

Alan Ridout wrote his Georg-Lieder cycle for John Mark Ainsley in 1985, and it’s such a pity that the composer died before these beautiful songs were given their first public performances. It’s easy to hear why Ridout was inspired to dedicate this cycle to this singer, since these heartfelt love songs need exactly the kind of open, direct yet sensitive interpretation which is Ainsley’s hallmark, and although they are a product of the last 20 years they are so graceful that they could not fail to move even those for whom melody died with Mahler. There is a lot of Schumann in the quality of the word setting, especially in the rapt devotion of the first and last songs, yet they possess a lyrical identity that is absolutely their own. Critics lost for superlatives often say of a singer that he ‘sang the songs as though they’d been written for him’ and of course these actually were: Ainsley sang them with perfect grace, and Vignoles gave him eloquent support. This song cycle needs recording, preferably alongside ‘Dichterliebe’ – can the market stand another version of the latter? Of course it can, if it is performed by these musicians.

The second half of the recital was devoted to French music, or at least music with a French connection. Poulenc’s Four Chansons found Ainsley and Vignoles in slightly less ideal form than the Ridout and Mendelssohn: these anxious, rather angular settings of poems by Aragon, Apollinaire and Charles d’Orleans are difficult to bring off successfully, and I felt that Vignoles was not his usual confident self during them, whilst Ainsley, although he characterized the curious ‘Fêtes Galantes’ with plenty of the required swagger, was slightly hampered by a tendency to rush up to the notes and by what seems to have become somewhat approximate French intonation. This is a pity, since his French used to be near-perfect: he’s deeply immersed in two huge operatic projects at present – Munich Festival’s ‘Saul’ and the Salzburg premiere of Henze’s new work ‘L’upupa,’ so perhaps Chanson is rather on the back burner. My eleven year old son, attending his first full recital (as opposed to rehearsals etc) was of the opinion that ‘It’s not his French, that music’s just not any good.’ Out of the mouths… perhaps. Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Tombeaux’ could be said to be cut from the same cloth as the Poulenc, but here Ainsley was able to give more bite to the language and a sharper focus to the phrasing, especially in the short but complex sketches of ‘D’un Fleuve’ and ‘De Narcisse.’

It was a different story with the final part of the recital, a group of Reynaldo Hahn which found the singer in perfect form: I have regarded Hahn as a neglected genius since I was about 15, and it’s wonderful to hear someone like Ainsley singing this beautiful but somehow unfashionable music. ‘A Chloris’ is one of the gems of the repertoire, the Bach-like accompaniment played here with great delicacy, and the words sung with this tenor’s habitual unforced candour. This is something else which Ainsley and Vignoles ought to be recording, although for now those who want to hear this delectable song on disc should be more than happy with Susan Graham’s version.

Hahn once said that he loved Taste, and hated Exaggeration – but the adorable ‘Venezia’ is probably just on the verge of the wrong side of what many people would regard as tasteful – never mind, it’s a delightful piece, first performed on a gondola, complete with piano and assorted acquaintances, all, the composer informs us, ‘well lit.’ These ‘Chansons en dialect Venetien’ are about seduction, youthful enjoyment and the passing of time, and they are not for every singer: the Venetian dialect (not, as the programme informs us, translated by the composer) is a challenge in itself, but it is one which my friend from Padua tells me Ainsley met superbly (‘Only one littal mistek, but hey! who mind?) – quite apart from the tricky temptations into camp which such works present, temptations which of course both Vignoles and Ainsley neatly avoided. I’ve heard Ainsley sing these songs a few times now, and each time he does them differently – it would be so easy to settle into a comfortable sameness with this music, which lies so gratefully for his voice and with which he is clearly in such sympathy, but that’s obviously not for him. I detected a little strain at the top last time in ‘La Barcheta’ but here it was sung with perfect ease, as was the gently erotic ‘La Biondina in gondoleta’ – I think I’ve said before that Ainsley is just about the last person you could imagine propelling (?) a gondola, but he certainly knows how to seduce with his voice, and those gently nudging lines ‘Perchè, o Dio, che bele cosse / Che g’ho ditto, e che g’ho fato!’ (Oh God, what lovely things I said, and did!) were as unforcedly emphatic as they could possibly be. The lightly sardonic ‘Che pecà!’ was sung with the semblance of careless ease, and the final ‘La primavera’ with its ecstatic evocation of springtime was sung and played with such fervour that you could almost smell those roses and lilies – Ainsley just couldn’t resist a touch of ‘I’m an Italian tenor’ at that lusty final line, but if you’ve got the notes – and he certainly has – then why not flaunt ‘em?

The single encore was Quilter’s magical setting of Edmund Waller’s ‘Goe, Lovely Rose’ and it was as perfect an envoi as could be imagined, sung with tenderness and played with elegance: ‘How small a part of time they share / That are so wondrous, sweete and faire’. I’d think twice before describing either man as ‘sweete and faire,’ but wondrous this recital certainly was.


Melanie Eskenazi



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