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Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Jensen, Pfitzner, Wolf: Kate Royal (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano). Wigmore Hall, 28.2.06 (AO)


One of the many great things that Graham Johnson has done for music, is to nurture young singers in the art of song. Kate Royal famously won the Kathleen Ferrier Competition in 2004 although this in itself means little : competition winners often disappear while erstwhile losers go on to successful careers. But Kate Royal caught the public attention because she is English, outstandingly beautiful, and has a big voice to match.  Sometimes, when everyone starts saying that so and so is “the next big thing”, the prophecy becomes self fulfilling, whether or not the singer is ready. Royal has genuine talent however, and a superlative mentor in Graham Johnson. 

This concert was an opportunity to see how Johnson nurtures young artists. He told the audience that the Mendelssohn songs would move seamlessly on to the Schumann: a kindly action, because singers often need to ease into concerts gently.  And it's often unfair to judge by the first songs in many recitals, which was certainly the case here. Royal sang far too generically initially and focussed on “how” she was singing at the expense of “what”.  Graham Johnson wisely slowed down his playing, signalling for her to relax and concentrate on the songs themselves, not on the performance. This is an easy mistake to make when singers are under pressure to show what they can do technically and  Royal did display her strengths – lovely rounded vowel sounds, dramatic bursts of power and emphasis, and a very good lower register indeed. 

Beautiful sound however, is by no means the whole of singing - particularly not in Lieder where intellectual acuity is needed for both texts and music. The programme was built around settings of the poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff and in theory, it would have been interesting to hear how different composers had set the same poems rather than different ones as was the case here. Kate Royal is not inexperienced - she has sung at Glyndebourne, in Madrid and at the Proms - but a programme like this needs singing idiomatically, with an understanding of different composers' demands.  Royal’s command of German is still unsteady and she had problems with syntax and intonation.  For example in Schumann's Im Walde she emphasised “Es zog” for dramatic effect, but needed a breath before the rest of the sentence - “ein Hochzeit den Berg entlang” - even though the wedding ('Hochzeit') is the key image in the text.  More strangely still, “Nacht” and “igallen” was sung as two words with an invisible exclamation mark between them. While singers certainly don’t need to be fluent in a language to sing it, or even to have good accents, respecting the musical line of a phrase is essential.

Johnson played more and more expressively, as if to reassure Royal and remind her about emotional involvement.  He is one of the most sensitive interpreters of song and it was fascinating watching him coaching Royal with his playing, gently easing her back on message.  Jensen’s over the top setting of Waldgespräch for example, lends itself to florid dramatisation.  Johnson played up the melodrama gloriously, and Royal matched it with her most expressive singing of the evening.  Later, in Wolf’s Die Nacht, his gentle, quiet playing enhanced Royal’s voice even more and she sang some beautiful passages, especially a lovely, atmospheric “Gedanken und Träume”.

Kate Royal's primary gift perhaps, is for opera, where her full, rich voice can be complemented by grand gestures and acting in role.  In opera, persona is defined by the plot as much as the music, while meaning is often more abstract in Lieder. Wolf’s songs though, are character pieces, miniature operas in themselves.  Thus Royal was in great form with Die Zigeunerin, where she could become the gypsy girl complete with la la la and ha ha ha refrains and lots of ethnic colour.  Johnson’s piano almost sounded like a guitar for this and for an encore, they did one of Wolf’s most magical songs, Verschwiegene Liebe.  Encores often bring out the best in singers and this was no exception. 

Anne Ozorio


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