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Clytemnestra
Rhian SAMUEL (b. 1944)
Clytemnestra, for soprano and orchestra [24:10]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Rückert-Lieder [19:09]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Altenberg Lieder Op. 4 [10:37]
Ruby Hughes (soprano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Jac van Steen
rec. 2018, BBC Hodinott Hall, Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, Wales
Premiere recording - Clytemnestra
BIS BIS2408 SACD [54:46]

If you don’t know Ruby Hughes, then start with track 2 and Mahler’s “Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!” and you will hear as pure and sweet a soprano sound as can be imagined, perfectly suited to this song. Proceed to the next one,  “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, that supreme statement of withdrawal from the world, if you wonder whether such a youthful sound can engage with the metaphysical intimations of Rückert’s poem. Perhaps not quite, but allied to Jac van Steen’s superb control of the orchestral texture, this famous song makes its mark pretty well.  “Um Mitternacht”, that great meditation on surrender to the infinite, has still greater impact, the singer rising to the challenge of Mahler’s mighty orchestral peroration with superb passion. Hughes’s lovely voice, for all the appeal of its basic timbre, does not quite offer the spinto power of some others, but the line and control of tone are considerable compensations, and so too are van Steen’s players, wonderfully caught in BIS’s fine SACD surround sound. The outer songs too are beautifully done, in a very satisfying account of the cycle, one of the best of recent years.

Only ten years later Berg's modernist language caused a scandal at its first performance and are not offered to audiences that often even now. Here too, Ruby Hughes sounds equally engaged with this much stranger world (of both words and notes), with many an expressionist nuance in her handling of these enigmatic texts. The cycle’s intriguing orchestral opening is evocatively delivered by the BBC players, and the awkwardly angular opening vocal line presents no problems to this soprano. She seems able to cope with the tricky intervals and leaps across the passagio expertly. The odd line of sprechgesang sounds quite idiomatic here, almost as if Ruby Hughes specialises in the songs of the Second Viennese School. A future Pierrot Lunaire awaits us perhaps. The fifth and last song of the cycle occupies nearly three-and-a-half minutes of the cycle’s full ten-and-a-half minute length. Here the use of a full chest voice is also impressive, with no deterioration in tone quality. This song is a passacaglia and the orchestra is a full partner in its effect, as so often in the Mahler cycle. About the last fifty seconds are given to an instrumental postlude, beautifully played here.

The disc ends with the recent work which gives its title to the disc - Clytemnestra for soprano and orchestra, written by the Welsh composer Rhian Samuel in 1994 for Della Jones. Samuel assembled her own text, drawing on various translations of Aeschylus' tragedy Agamemnon, but using only Queen Clytemnestra’s speeches, and focusing on her anguish at her husband’s sacrifice of their daughter, and her impulse to vengeance. It is thus a more sympathetic, or at least more balanced, view of the character than that familiar from Strauss’s Elektra, but does not shrink from the horror of the deeds that set in train the successive tragedies of the House of Atreus. The twenty-four minute work is divided into seven sections, six of them setting a particular stage of Clytemnestra’s appalling journey, so that the soprano is the title character in a monodrama. The other (quite short) section is “The Deed”, portraying the murder of the King by his Queen, and is purely orchestral. In fact the colourful and dramatic orchestral writing, broadly tonal but stirringly abrasive when needed, is a key part of the work.

The first three sections show Clytemnestra describing the “Chain of Flame” as successive beacons announce “Agamemnon’s Return”, recalling her ambivalent “Lament for his Absence” and dissembling her pleasure at welcoming him home. That third section begins with Ruby Hughes vocally assured in a sort of faux innocence, and ends with the weightier menace of the line “Justice herself leads you to a home you never hoped to see”. Often the orchestra, as in this section with its heavy, violent chords, tells us what the words conceal. The purely orchestral “The Deed” is violent too of course, coloured by bass guitar, and recalling at some moments the most famous and violent of all musical sacrifices, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Section five is “The Confession” which is very far from penitent with its jerkily melismatic boast “...this is my work and I claim it.” Unrepentant too is the ensuing “Defiance”, while the final “Epilogue. Dirge” has a massive final climax (“My tears in rivers run”), and a poignant final minute of bleak, haunted, orchestral lamentation.

Ruby Hughes identifies with all this in her assumption of the tragic Queen’s role, her anger, cunning and despair a tour-de-force of vocal acting, in a part which makes demands on range, agility and colour commensurate with those made by Berg. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Jac van Steen are superb too, full partners in this dreadful crime with powerful and dramatic playing. They are splendidly recorded in BIS’s fine surround sound production, and there are full notes, texts and translations. In 2015, when Ruby Hughes discovered Clytemnestra it had not been performed since its première and we should be grateful she has championed the work with such committment, for it is very well worth this revival. If it gets more performances of this quality, Rhian Samuel’s Clytemnestra could yet take its place alongside other British excursions into Classical Greek myth such as Tippett’s King Priam and especially Britten’s Phaedra, that other great female confessional monologue.

Whether adding to your Mahler songs, exploring Berg, or investigating murder in Mycenae, this is highly recommended.

Roy Westbrook
 



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