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Nocturnal Variations
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Nachtstück, D672 [5:42]
Romanze, D797 [3:14]
Abendstern, D806 [2:48]
Die Sterne, D939 [3:28]
Im Abendrot, D799 [3:54]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen [8:05]
Um Mitternacht [7:04]
Urlicht [5:44]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Vier Gesänge, op.2:
Schlafen, schlafen [3:20]
Schlafend trägt man mich [1:12]
Nun ich der Riesen Stärksten überwand [0:58]
Warm die Lüfte [3:18]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Evening from This Way to the Tomb [1:49]
Night from This Way to the Tomb [1:47]
Um Mitternacht [4:30]
At the mid hour of night [2:50]
Ruby Hughes (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 1-4 June 2014 in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK

This is an extraordinary and rather brave CD (yes I know, dangerous word ‘brave’!). The brave bit is the programming; to put together a recital of songs all on the subject of night and things nocturnal is imaginative yet fraught with danger. There is bound to be a preponderance of slow tempi and ‘dark’ textures, and it could all become a bit much. So how well have these two brought it off?

Well, there’s no question, first of all, that we have two major talents here. Ruby Hughes has an exceptionally flexible high soprano voice; she can move from an almost toneless sotto voce through to a rich, full sound in the twinkling of an eye. And that hints at her approach to these wonderful songs; she is a natural story-teller, and is always on the look-out for colour and drama. I have yet to hear her ‘live’, but this recital left me gagging to do so. Just occasionally I felt she might be in danger of overdoing the ‘tiny little’ voice she uses; but in the end, I felt that she was responding to the needs as well as the possibilities of the recording studio. Such sustained extremely soft singing would often be impracticable in concert-room acoustics. Here, on CD and in the privacy of one’s listening room, it is riveting.

Her accompanist, Joseph Middleton, is a fine musician, technically secure, and fully responsive to Hughes’s, and the composers’, poetic visions. He has to deal with some demanding piano parts; Britten’s extravagant flourishes in ‘Evening’ (is he assisted ever so discreetly by the engineers as those arpeggios recede into the distance? Doesn’t bother me if he is!); and the utterly orchestral textures of Mahler’s Um Mitternacht must be played without any suspicion of apology – I would say ‘Go for it’, and that’s what he does!

The five Schubert songs make fascinating listening, beginning with Nachtstück (‘Night Piece’ or ‘Nocturne’). This one of Schubert’s most extraordinary songs, a ‘scena’ in which an old man walks in the forest, then serenades the night as he senses the approach of death. Schubert describes all of this with shifting harmonies, which push towards the boundaries of tonality. The duo capture the strange ambiguous emotions perfectly.

The Romanze is a plaintive number from the Rosamunde incidental music, not one I’d come across before – quite simple and very lovely. Abendstern (‘Evening Star’), with its constant veering between major and minor, revisits the ambiguity of Nachtstück, while the late song Die Sterne (‘The Stars’) brings another type of tonal experimentation, in the form of harmonic side-slips which perfectly express the sense of awe and magic at the sight of a star-filled night sky. These constant shifts of key are demanding for a singer, but Hughes takes them in her stride, while remaining alert to all the poetic nuances. Finally in this group, the quietly sumptuous piano chords of Im Abendrot (‘Sunset Glow’) suggest the subdued brilliance of the setting sun.

The Mahler and Berg songs that follow call for a greater range of expression, or at least for a greater intensity. ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’) is a famous song from Mahler’s ‘Knaben Wunderhorn’ settings; it presents a dialogue between two lovers, and gives Ruby Hughes an opportunity to display her dramatic skills. There is one breath whose positioning I would question, but I won’t quibble with the overall interpretation of the song, which is totally convincing.

For me, it is in the Berg and Britten groups that Hughes most fully comes into her own. The former call for a special kind of intimacy, an almost dream-like quality, and Hughes is able to deliver that perfectly. Her relatively small vibrato makes it possible to hear the true shape of the melodic phrases, so often somewhat glossed over by singers with a less precise sense of pitch.

The first of the four poems Berg sets is by Christian Hebbel, the others by Alfred Mombert; and it is in these latter three that we enter the not so much dream-like, more nightmarish world of the later Berg of the opera ‘Wozzeck’. Warm die Lüfte (‘Warm the Breezes), in particular, is an extraordinary song, with moments of expressionistic ‘Sprechgesang’. Hughes projects this superbly, always preserving beauty of tone despite the harrowing emotions.

The group of Britten songs underlines the way Britten was drawn to themes of night, darkness and sleep, in cycles such as the Serenade and the Nocturne, but also in the operas Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice, to name but two. Again, this duo prove persuasive advocates, ending the disc in a deeply satisfying manner with At the Mid Hour of Night, Britten’s setting of one of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies.

This disc is very special; the nature of it makes me recommend hearing it in two or three sittings rather than all at once. Something to relish, and a great achievement.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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