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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Ives, Rorem, Poulenc, Walton. Emma Bell, Andrew West, Jane Peters, Wigmore Hall, 17th May 2003 (ME)

Always accept sweets from strangers... well, at the Wigmore Hall, anyway, and when the stranger in question is a charming pianist about to play there in two weeks’ time: it’s not often that someone introduces themselves to you in this august little space, since most regulars are part of the furniture and would rather chat amongst their own coterie, and this little interlude was nicely illustrative of the informal atmosphere which prevailed at this curious concert. The programme was an oddity in both senses: the title of ‘Town and Country’ encouraged you to imagine a Graham Johnson-type evening, when that was not really on offer, and the actual booklet itself was a rather amateurish affair without a formal listing of works, these being given with the notes. No matter: unconventional in style it may have been, but the evening allowed us to hear three of today’s rising stars in a varied repertoire which genuinely did have something for everyone.

I have previously remarked on Emma Bell’s scrupulous musicality and the haunting beauty of her tone (in a review of her performance as Rodelinda with William Christie early in 2002) and to these qualities she has now added a very confident stage presence and a striking variety of timbre, rendering her voice far more individual than I had previously thought it. Mozart’s ‘L’amerò, sarò costante’ is ideal to display the dramatic edge to her tone as well as her skilful control of line, and she was beautifully accompanied by Andrew West, whose arrangement of the orchestration was played, and Jane Peters, who gave as lovely an account of the violin obbligato as I’ve heard.

The Mozart was presumably the ‘country’ part of the evening’s vocal segment, since the groups which followed were all urban, if not urbane, in subject matter and style. Ives’ ‘Memories’ has that appealing directness which singles him out, and Bell sang these pieces with real panache. Poulenc is believed to have said that the Jardin du Luxembourg was ‘the only countryside that I like’ and that he approached anything that concerns Paris ‘with tears in my eyes and my head full of music,’ and his brittle, café-culture style is heard to perfection in ‘Voyage à Paris’ and ‘Montparnasse,’ both of which were sung with fluency of line if not absolutely perfect diction.

Walton’s ‘A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table’ is to me the least appealing of his works, since the juxtapositions of high and low life don’t quite ring true, to my ears, and only ‘Holy Thursday’ reveals the composer of ‘Anon in Love.’ Perhaps this is partly due to the greatness of Blake’s poem, but in this piece the vocal line is so finely constructed as to make it sound effortless to sing, which it surely cannot be, and Emma Bell gave it every possible expressive nuance, especially in the closing ‘ Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.’

Andrew West is one of the most intuitively sympathetic accompanists around: I have heard him play for Mark Padmore and Christopher Maltman and been impressed by the sensitivity without undue reticence which characterizes his playing, and on this occasion he began the recital with two pieces which showed that he has the necessary individuality and showmanship for a parallel solo career. There were times during Beethoven’s Op. 28 Piano Sonata when he was a bit heavy on the pedal, but he gave the Andante the gravity and dignity it requires, and he collaborated with Jane Peters most eloquently in Schubert’s Fantasy in C (D. 934). This wonderful work (described in the notes – presumably by the pianist – as ‘something of an oddity’ although I have never regarded it as such) is the ideal introduction to Schubert’s chamber music for those who know him only through the songs, since its most noticeable characteristic is its extended variations on ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ and Jane Peters played those solemn, arching phrases (O du entrissne mir, und meinen kusse…) with real beauty of tone and sweetness of intonation, despite a little awkwardness in the approach to a couple of phrases. It’s probably not too much to hope that one or two of the younger-than-usual audience might be inspired to explore further in the music of both Schubert and the other composers featured in this enterprising recital.


Melanie Eskenazi


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