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S & H Recital Review

Opening Concert of the Wigmore Hall 2003-2004 season: Debussy, de Falla, Strauss, Britten – Amanda Roocroft, Graham Johnson. Saturday 6th September 2003 (ME)


The planning of any opening concert is bound to be fraught with problems: setting the tone for a whole year, giving a showcase example of what’s on offer and welcoming back regular patrons is a heavy load for any evening to bear. This season, Christine Schäfer was to have been the icebreaker, presenting a finely judged Schubert programme, but a serious family illness meant that as from the 3rd, she would be unable to appear – unhappily this illness had, by the 6th, apparently become bereavement, so one’s first feelings are naturally of sadness for her. One’s subsequent reflections concern the sparse audience which turned out to hear her substitute: the hall was not much more than two thirds full, a very poor house for the opening night of this ‘National Concert Hall for Chamber Music and Song’ as Paul Kildea, the new Artistic Director, rightly calls it, and it prompted me to wonder how these ‘matters are ordered’ here.

Apparently the hall was not sold out for Schäfer anyway, but there must have been many cancellations: I don’t – or rather didn’t – care much for Roocroft’s voice, but would not consider staying away, because one does not just ‘not turn up’ when there is a change of artist. Could it be that the competition from the Proms (‘War and Peace’ with Keenlyside and White) was too strong – or might it also be that some of the Wigmore’s regulars were still at the Schubertiade? (Magdalena Kozena scheduled for the 6th, replaced by Christopher Maltman). At any rate, rather than fret about what a smallish audience bodes for this beloved place I’d rather make a positive suggestion, which is that next year the Wigmore’s opening should perhaps be delayed by a week – or, failing that, that the opening concert should feature one of the select group of singers who would sell out this hall no matter who was performing elsewhere – and we all know who they are, don’t we – even though some of our fellow lovers of Song in the U.S. apparently regard one of them as a ‘voiceless twit.’

Back to the recital. What a daunting thing it is, to appear at a couple of days’ notice, with an accompanist who has also had to change his plans, in this case from playing an all-Schubert programme: and it must be even more daunting when the hall is not full, and those present are not exactly one hundred per cent welcoming. A huge Bravo! to Amanda Roocroft for her totally professional attitude and eventual winning over of most of the audience, and of course to Graham Johnson for his unstinting support. I have yet to hear this soprano in a performance which will reveal what I am assured is a great voice, and of course this one would not be an appropriate evening on which to base a judgment: I keep hearing hints of a really exciting edge to the timbre, but this gets lost too soon in face of a rather general interpretative style and sometimes inexact diction. However, her programme was interesting, and she earned herself a big accolade from me just by including two of my favourite songs, both by Strauss, and again by confining her encores to that composer.

Debussy’s ‘Ariettes oubliées’ are not only technically difficult to sing, but they bring with them a whole catalogue of great interpretations of the past, and one’s inner ear does tend to drift towards Maggie Teyte in this music: Roocroft and Johnson made a decent try at them, but they were hampered by a sense of unease which seemed particularly to affect the pianist, who was uncharacteristically reticent throughout them. ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ was somewhat vague in terms of French diction, but the tone had plenty of bite, and although some of the ideal languor was missing from ‘L’ombre des arbres,’ the final song ‘Spleen’ with its challenging leaps was impressively performed.

Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folksongs are, to be quite candid, the sort of thing from which I tend to run a mile, and I doubt if hearing even de los Angeles sing them would give me much pleasure: nevertheless, one has to remark upon Johnson’s wonderfully fluid playing of the triplets in the ‘Seguidilla’ and his colourful sense of phrasing throughout: I also liked Roocroft’s tenderness of tone in ‘Nana.’

The second half was an enticing combination of Strauss and Britten, beginning with the tremendous ‘Allerseelen’ which I find one of the greatest pieces in the entire song repertoire: I shall never forget the first time I heard Fischer-Dieskau sing this, with such wonderful sensitivity to language and such unforced tenderness, and it is not easy for other singers to equal that – however, one is always open to different ways of treating a masterpiece, and Roocroft’s passionate singing here was her best of the evening, with an impressive scaling down to that final ‘Wie einst im Mai’ from the earlier outbursts. The ‘Ophelia Lieder’ found both singer and pianist in characterful form, and ‘Zueignung’ was sung with commitment if perhaps a little forced at the phrase ‘Habe Dank!’

The scheduled programme ended with Britten’s ‘On This island,’ all too infrequently performed and full of poetical and musical riches. The first song, ‘Let the florid music praise!’ is perhaps Britten’s greatest of his many hymns of love to Purcell, just as Auden’s words are themselves hymns of another kind: Roocroft and Johnson performed it with passionate advocacy although the voice was a little strained at times. ‘Seascape’ is one of Auden’s finest poems, as perfect an evocation of place as anything in Hardy, and the exquisite lines need to tell – here, unfortunately, they got rather lost, and even though I know the piece well I had to strain to hear ‘The leaping light for your delight discovers’ and ‘Where the chalk wall falls to the foam.’ ‘As is, plenty’ with its sardonic humour brought the recital to a vivid close.

The two encores were a very winning ‘Hat’s gesagt, bleib’ nichts dabei’ and an ambitious ‘Beim Schlafengehn’ which was perhaps too much at this stage of an evening: Roocroft does not have the sheer beauty of silvery tone needed for the ‘Four Last Songs,’ and Johnson’s playing, sensitive though it was, seemed rather struggling during the haunting string passage. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable evening of music making in this perfect venue, even if the audience was small and the performers coping with all the problems engendered by short notice and high expectations.


Melanie Eskenazi



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