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Schumann and Brahms: Dame Felicity Lott (sop); Ann Murray DBE (mezzo); Graham Johnson OBE (pno) Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 12.1.2006 (RJF)

Mancunians are justifiably proud of the Bridgewater Hall. It opened over a decade ago with worries about its acoustic but these were quickly assuaged when Daniel Barenboim and his Berlin orchestra made  a celebratory opening visit.  Whilst the newly resurgent Halle under Mark Elder cannot quite match the Berliners the orchestra and the Hall have made a happy marriage, particularly after the rather unfriendly acoustic of Manchester’s famous Free Trade Hall. Only the façade of that building now remains as it has been converted to hotel use.

What was not replaced when the Bridgewater Hall was completed was the Lesser Free Trade Hall which used to be in same building as the larger concert hall. At a quarter of the size of its neighbour, the Lesser Hall's more intimate size would have made an ideal venue for Monday evening's concert by this trio of world-renowned artists. As it was, even  with only the stalls and the first tier of the Bridgewater opened, and then only sparsely populated, with singers and pianist whose efforts soared into the empty spaces, lack of intimacy was the only failure of the evening. This was was the first recital of the year in the Bridgewater’s International Concert Series and was billed as a commemoration of 150 years since the death of Robert Schumann.


Part One of the concert was titled 'An Album for the Young' and comprised Robert Schumann’s 17 songs from Liederalbum für die Jugund Op. 79 (1849) interleaved with 5 pieces from Klavieralbum für die Jugund Op. 68 (1848) and Soldantlied WoO 6 (1844). In his brief introduction, Graham Johnson explained that of all the great Austro-German lieder composers Schumann was the only one to have had a large family, seven children. for whom the composer wrote songs with obvious affection.

Ann Murray opened with the first phrase of Der Abendstern (Op. 79, No. 1). She was immediately in refulgent voice with absolute purity of tone, accuracy of intonation allied to a wide palette of colour. Felicity Lott joined the duet, matching her long time colleague perfectly (they go back to the early years of The Songmakers’ Almanac). Whilst her singing was pure and her expressiveness exemplary, her voice opened up and added greater bloom as the concert progressed. With Graham Johnson’s unequalled feel accompanying this series of songs and duets, interleaved by seemingly brief pieces, at least under his fingers, the first part of the concert although lasting forty minutes, flew by. There were two good reasons for this: first Johnson had suggested the audience wait until the end before showing their appreciation and also because the careful construction of the works selected allowed for a wide range of moods and emotions all of which were fully realised by the soloists. Of particular note were Felicity Lott’s creamy tone and full colours in the twelfth piece Weihnachtlied (Op. 79 No. 17) and the perfect unison between the singers when Ann Murray joined in. Ann Murray’s ethereally beautiful head voice had been a notable feature of the previous duet Der Sandmann (Op. 79 No. 13).


Part Two of the concert was titled 'A Family Portrait' and represented a shift to adult experience with settings by both Robert Schumann and Brahms. The Schumann group represented movement through adolescence to adulthood and grand-parenthood. Felicity Lott superbly expressed Der Nussbaum (the walnut tree) and really opened up her voce in Lied der Braut (the brides song) whilst Ann Murray brought her considerable artistry to Die Kartenlegerin (the Fortune Teller) and Muttertraum (Mother’s Dream). The Brahms set focussed on mothers and daughters. Brahms of course played for Schumann and loved one of the daughters. With the two soloists now singing off as well as too one another, in perfect vocal unison with each other and with their accompanist, these three pieces were a particular highlight of the evening. In Och Moder (O Mother) Ann Murray’s characterisation was brilliant whilst Felicity Lott, well into histrionic mode by this time made faces as the duet became very jolly; it drew a deserved ripple of applause from an audience enraptured by the performance. The following near Wagnerian Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) saw the duo playing and singing to even greater effect. It served as a warmer for the lighter fare that was to follow as the mood changed with an expressive Mother Machree from Ann Murray, and a fully histrionic Mrs Worthington from Felicity Lott who nearly pushed her music stand into its base at the conclusion. The formal concert ended on this relaxed note with all three participants enjoying themselves with Ivor Novello’s And her mother came too! I need hardly say that in the latter piece the faces and interaction between the singers had the audience ‘in tucks’. It was a good preparation for the first encore of Sisters and the second where a bit of competition for high notes, and some pulled faces from the lower registered Ann Murray was equally amusing.


Without doubt this was one of the most enjoyable evenings of singing I have had for many a year and one of the very highest quality. All three participants had a unity of purpose and realisation that is all too rare. I regret that more Mancunians did not turn up to support the Bridgewater in bringing these consummate artists to the city. I also regret that Manchester does not possess a more intimate theatre such as London’s Wigmore Hall to set such excellence off to perfection. Although there was no mention of it in the printed programme, I would expect this trio to be taking this programme to other venues in the UK. If it is billed as coming anywhere near you, I can only recommend it in the strongest possible terms.

Robert J Farr







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