It has long been one of the curiosities of the Leicester chamber music scene that the song recital has been something of a rarity amongst so many other delights. My experience suggests to me that this is largely down to money, arising out of the sad fact that such entertainment in Leicester risks having a somewhat smaller audience than other forms of intimate music making, even when the singer is world famous. For long I have puzzled over this. Why in a city with a fine choral tradition should a format which shows that finest of instruments, the human voice, at its most expressive not attract hordes of music lovers?
Perhaps, in truth there is something intimidating in the form’s fusion of poetry and music, demanding as it does an audience’s attention to both. In opera the stage action, the spectacle, helped to carry you forward even before the invention of surtitles. Indeed, nowadays the problem is that the latter just occasionally work against pleasure. There are a few operas where, when their libretti are exposed to the clear light of day, one finds oneself wishing that dusk would return!
However, that dusk cannot be acceptable in a song recital, where at its finest every line, even every syllable is meant to count. Of course, surtitles are rarely, if ever, an option in chamber music venues, even if, as some would argue, they were not thought to distract from the directness of communication with an audience which is at the very centre of this art form. Yet the pressure on the singer to convey and interpret detail with clarity is immense and even in this intimate setting in some of the greatest of songs the need for the singer and pianist to be true to the drama and to press it home inevitably causes words to become clouded in the pursuit of the musical line. In addition, when the words are not provided in the programme, perhaps for good reason to stop continual rustling of paper, when the song is in a foreign language unknown to most of the audience, it is perhaps not that surprising that some music lovers, even lovers of song, stay at home, preferring to listen to annotated recordings.
Of course, they are wrong and mercifully on this occasion many clearly thought they were since the gallery was well filled. As the fine recital given by Kitty Whately and Julius Drake showed triumphantly, the barriers can vanish and you find that there is no musical art form which can better communicate the very essence of human feeling. Once or twice, I must admit I struggled to grasp the moment since the words were in German or obscured in the force of the music. However, those of you who are alert to names will know that this singer has drama in her blood and by goodness it showed. When together with a pianist supreme in partnering singers, the results were predictably riveting.
From the opening Purcell songs it was clear that we were listening to a mezzo voice of velvety beauty. However, I have been here a few times before particularly in the opera house where a voice new to one impresses with its loveliness, only after ten minutes or so for one to begin to wonder where the personality is and after twenty minutes to be thoroughly underwhelmed if not bored. Here two songs in Purcell’s Dido mode were predictably finely rendered but I relished particularly the singer’s cutting dispatch of There’s not a swain as evidence of real personality. That wit carried over to a song from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn , though here and in three of Schubert’s Faust songs featuring the unfortunate Gretchen who gets her love life so badly wrong, I would have liked the text. Not that it mattered too much in the well known Gretchen at her Spinning- Wheel in which the power of the voice was thrilling, as was the range of the piano accompaniment.
Then it was back to words in English and two composers only known to me by name, Joseph Horowitz and Jonathan Dove. The first was represented by Lady Macbeth.A Scena which set to music three of the character’s speeches tracing the formidable lady’s course to eternal perdition. As a literary fellow I was ready to be loftily indulgent. One doesn’t attempt one of the peaks of world literature without being severely at risk. Ms. Whately cleared the stage of music-stand and score, clearly ready to do battle, and what a battle it was. The work was in a way straightforward but in this performance minute by minute seemed to hit on music that complemented the words well and both in body and voice the singer inhabited the increasing nightmare that is the character’s world. It was nothing less than a mini-opera of considerable power. Perhaps, the music served the words rather than making one see them anew as great music does to verse but it was still compelling stuff.
And so to Jonathan Dove. I had read laudatory reviews of some of his work but there was always about those reviews something slightly condescending concerning the approachability of the music. Clearly we still live in a post Schoenberg, Boulezian world in which musicologists and some critics cannot quite come to terms with a composer who is listenable to and engaging from the off. Perhaps they feel something to be wrong if music appeals widely!
Well, all I can say is that this music seemed to me to be of real substance. Settings on 18c.love poems entitled Five Am’rous Sighs were given music that powerfully depicted lust in all its guises. One particularly noted how fine was the writing for piano; this was no secondary voice. It was also a constant delight to hear how the singer showed once again the range of her voice and her ability to find a sound world absolutely complementing the words.
If anything, that was even more evident in settings of three poems by the American poet Edna Millay Nights Not Spent Alone , no doubt in their time startling in their explicitness. Here the music was positively haunting in the way it created not only the passion of the verse but seemed to put it convincingly in an American setting. It appeared to have imbibed that vein of American music most memorably to be found in Copland and Barber and yet to have its own personality. The powerfully sensuous performance led one to hope that a recording would be made of it.
In conclusion, thanks are to Julius Drake for bringing to Leicester yet another fine youthful singer. Thanks are to her for putting together such a richly variegated programme and then performing it with such artistry. She is clearly already embarked on a fine career.