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'When I have Sung my Songs to You'  -  A Recital of American Song: Christine Brewer (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano). Wigmore Hall, London 28.1.2011 (JPr)

Once I was at a concert given by the late Rita Hunter when the advertised heavier operatic programme was replaced with the much-lighter fare of English songs, operetta and songs from the shows. If my memory does not fail me, she announced the excuse for the change was that her music was locked in her piano stool and she could not find the key! There was no such excuse for American soprano, Christine Brewer’s recital at the Wigmore Hall that did ‘what it said on the tin’ as it was titled: ‘When I have Sung my Songs to You – A recital of American Song’. This actually referred mainly to the second half of her programme when Brewer paid tribute to past divas and sang the encores they were famous for. With Roger Vignoles as her willing accomplice at the piano, as on their recent Hyperion CD Echoes of Nightingales: American Encores, Ms Brewer sang the songs with which ‘Golden Age’ singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Eileen Farrell and Eleanor Steber would finish their recitals. These songs were mostly by American composers and were sung in English.

The first half of the recital was, however, something completely different; Gian Carlo Menotti never became an American, though he went there to be with Samuel Barber, and his Canti della Lontananza were written in 1967 at a low point in his relationship with Barber, though the programme book explained nothing about this or about the songs. These are, therefore, seven very personal songs with insight into their private moments. Christine Brewer sang them mostly with great ‘heart-on-sleeve’ conviction - particularly La lettera (The letter) and Rassegnazione (Resignation) - without ever sounding totally at ease with Menotti’s style. Il settimo bicchiere di vino (The seventh glass of wine) was fast and a bit garbled and high notes were not always on pitch. Sadly, I am not too familiar with Menotti and found the music surprisingly ‘vertical’ compared to the longer lines that I believe to be a feature of Barber’s music … though that may well be a point Menotti was trying to make.

The misplaced optimism of a soldier at war that quickly spirals into defeatism was apparent in the UK première of Alan Smith’s 2002 Letters from George to Evelyn. This cycle has some powerful moments and is almost as much spoken as sung. It uses excerpts from genuine WWII correspondence concerning – and, most poignantly, between - First Lieutenant George W Honts and Evelyn, his wife. ‘We are pitiful in the bliss and pain of it’ was accompanied by music with a Britten-esque quality and Ms Brewer certainly made an emotional connection with her audience at ‘This morning my heart goes out to you’. However the small size of the Wigmore Hall counted against the top of her voice at ‘If I were the big, brave, invincible knight of your dreams?’ and the sound reverberated on and on. Roger Vignoles came to the fore here and conjured up a most appropriate marching accompaniment to ‘The order of the day is mud-mud-mud …’.

After the interval it was time for those bravura encore party-pieces of great divas of the past. These were by turns kitsch, schmaltzy or maudlin and throughout I felt Roger Vignoles was not the ‘sympathetic accompanist’ of Celius Dougherty’s Review, but since this music doesn’t really deserve such respect both performers needed to ‘give it some welly’ - a phrase often used by a famous singer I know. Mostly the songs cranked and cranked themselves up until the last 3 or 4 lines to end in a ‘money note’ that would hopefully send the various divas’ audiences into ecstasy. Hickory Hill was, thankfully, more reflective, Stopping by woods on a snowy evening was folky and had a trotting accompaniment, and best of them was the upbeat, jazzier, bluesier ‘Happiness is a thing called Joe’. It all finished with Review - a ‘review’ of Miss Sadabelle Smith’s first New York recital. This was entertainingly elaborated by Ms Brewer but just occasionally one or two of the criticisms she illustrated were just a little to close to home.

Between songs Christine Brewer showed a very pleasing stage personality. Early on in the second half as the audience sat on its hands she said ‘I know you want to clap, these are all encores and I thought you’d need some cheering up after the first half.’ Later quoting ‘God, give me hills and strength to climb’ from Frank La Forge’s Hills she said that it was ‘Kind-a my motto. I always tell my husband I want this on my tombstone’.

After two encores of her own Frank Bridge’s ‘Love went a-riding’ and Bob Merrill’s Mira (Can You Imagine That?) it was all over. As much as I felt I could join in the enthusiastic applause of the audience I thought it was rather a short musical programme and both halves together only just passed 60 minutes, the length of a typical lunchtime recital. Finally, what can be done about the Wigmore Hall audience? I know they advertise in the programme book about the success of their ‘Learning events’ with young people but they were nowhere to be seen in the barely two-thirds full audience that – like me – is almost totally grey-haired and ageing. I mean no offence by saying that, for me, the Wigmore Hall seems stuck in a post-War time warp and when the music ends for its core audience – as it must for all of us sometime – then that’ll be the beginning of the end for this venerable venue.

Jim Pritchard

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