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S & H Concert Review

Purcell, arr. Britten: songs from plays; Two divine hymns. Britten: The Five Canticles. John Mark Ainsley, Michael Chance, Leigh Melrose, Roger Vignoles, Richard Watkins, Lucy Wakeford. Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20th January 2004 (ME)

The ‘Song on the South Bank’ series is a noble attempt to perform the near – impossible: that is, to attract lovers of vocal music away from the obvious perfections of the Wigmore Hall to a place memorably described by Thomas Quasthoff as ‘ideal for the development of photos.’ It’s amusing to recall that when the QEH was first used as a recital hall, the prediction was that it would soon put the Wigmore into the shade, and it is not only due to William Lyne’s brilliance that this forecast proved a false one, since going to the QEH involves not just grappling with the insulting surroundings of the so-called ‘South Bank complex’ but also grinning and bearing the unwelcoming foyer / bar area where smoking is rife, not to mention sitting in a super-heated auditorium so murkily lit that one can’t even spot friends at three rows’ distance. This series got off to a less than promising start with a couple of not exactly stellar evenings, featuring notable singers who, for varying reasons, were some way from their best, but on this occasion it was worth straying from Wigmore Street to experience a performance of Britten’s ‘Canticles’ of such authority and dramatic power that it is hard to imagine it being bettered.

The success of this evening was partly due to the coherent planning of the programme: eschewing the notion that audiences prefer ‘a bit of this and a bit of that,’ we got a pretty relentlessly serious couple of hours, with just two closely linked composers involved and only a whisper or two of anything approaching levity. The rather brief first half was less engaging than the second, since Britten’s arrangements of Purcell were at times performed earnestly rather than with the wit they require. ‘Let the dreadful engines of the eternal will’ is one of those semi-demented rants with which Purcell excelled in providing his comic baritones (think the Drunken Poet in The Faerie Queene) but it is not an easy piece with which to begin an evening: Leigh Melrose coped fairly well with the frequent key changes involved in suggesting the character’s emotions but his voice as yet lacks colour and variety – one suspects that he was a little exposed in this context and in this vocal company, since it has only been a few years since he was a ‘Cardiff Singer of the World’ finalist. His burgeoning operatic career stands him in good stead when it comes to stage presence, but one wants a little more individuality in the voice to support this kind of music.

Individuality is certainly Michael Chance’s calling card, and he did all he could to present ‘Pious Celinda’ and ‘Sweeter than roses’ in as winning a manner as possible: his tone quality remains a fine one, but at present his pitch is not quite certain at crucial moments, and of course he uses much of his artistry to circumvent this, with a consequent loss in terms of vivid vocal presentation. My own first experience of these songs was hearing them sung by the tenor Nigel Rogers, in so florid and enthusiastically lubricious a manner that I was quite astonished by them, and by his style of vocal production: Chance is more subtle, and although I doubt if many of the audience were surprised by his performance, they will have enjoyed, as I did, his fluency in the ornate passages and his obvious desire to bring home the message of the words, with Roger Vignoles his equal in relishing the music of such passages as ‘Then shot like fire…’ even though pianist and singer were not always totally in harmony.

Britten’s Five Canticles are infrequently given as a whole, and, quite apart from the fact that they were not written as one piece or even projected as a unit, it’s not hard to see why: they seem to require an unusual commitment on the part of the singers, their vocal and histrionic demands are stringent, and they present challenges in staging, all of which difficulties were triumphantly solved in this remarkable performance. ‘Semi – staged’ is a loaded term, with uncomfortable overtones of penguin suits and silk dresses semaphoring embarrassingly: here, it meant presented with the utmost simplicity, beautifully lit (yes, it’s possible in the QEH, but to whom do we give the credit, since s/he was not listed in the programme?) and with effective yet minimal movement which served to contextualize both music and words. Of course, none of this would fully succeed without the involvement of a central singer possessed of unusual vocal prowess and stage presence, and we had that in the person of John Mark Ainsley, a tenor who genuinely does fit the description of ‘a British singer on the world stage,’ and whose singing of Britten is now without equal.

The tenor soloist holds the individual works together in much the same way as a Bach Evangelist, here too narrating stories of elemental suffering and divine forgiveness, and Ainsley’s performance was a model of verbal clarity, noble restraint, most moving depiction of dramatic passages, and vocal distinction of that rare kind entirely devoid of hooting, preciousness or blandness. This is perhaps the most truly literate singer around today, and I know that’s mainly why I admire him so much, but no one in this audience could do other than respond with delight to the singing he gave us in ‘My beloved is mine’ and ‘Still Falls the Rain.’ Quarles’ ‘A Divine Rapture’ is overtly religious in subject matter but Britten’s setting of it is clearly expressive of the love between man and man: the wonderful beginning, with the piano’s distinct parts for each hand finally merging into one, was superbly performed by both singer and pianist, and lines such as ‘He’s my supporting elm and I his vine’ given with absolute directness and subdued passion as well as crystal clear diction.

Sitwell’s poem ‘Still Falls the Rain’ is one of Britten’s most eloquent and also most Purcellian settings: here, Richard Watkins’ horn provided the vocal line with rather reticent support in contrast to the intensity of the vocal performance, which appropriately rose to a searing, but not over-stated pitch at ‘See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!’

‘Abraham and Isaac’ was the evening’s central performance, and it was superb: this most operatic of pieces, so often recalling Britten’s other vocal works, most movingly Billy Budd, is simply constructed of a duet between tenor and alto voices to depict the instructions of God, and the persons of Father and Son presented by tenor and alto respectively. I don’t know how Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier interpreted the work at its 1952 premiere but I cannot imagine any finer rendition than that which Ainsley and Chance gave us on this occasion: Chance’s assumption of the role of the innocent child was absolutely perfect, his tone and manner unforced yet utterly convincing, and he blended exquisitely with the tenor in their unison passages. Ainsley’s singing of the father was masterly: the voice is so beautiful in itself that it must surely be a temptation to simply ride with it, but he is consistently responsive to every vocal and verbal nuance and subtlety: always the figure of authority, he was nevertheless quite heart-breaking at such lines as ‘Make thee ready, my dear darling’ and especially ‘Come hither, my child, thou art so sweet, / Thou must be bound both hands and feet.’ This was highly charged yet never over-stated singing of a kind which I am sure Britten would have loved, as indeed he would have approved of Vignoles’ liquid accompaniment.

The final works were a powerful ‘Journey of the Magi’ and a very much less reserved performance than the usual of ‘The death of Saint Narcissus’ in which the eloquence of the singing was beautifully echoed by the harp of Lucy Wakeford. It’s two very starry names for the remaining recitals in this series, Dmitri Hvorostovsky on February 17th and Renee Fleming on March 25th – if they’re not already sold out, it’s worth braving the concrete blocks to go and hear them.


Melanie Eskenazi




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