Thursday, 25 November 2010

Dreamy Songs and Poems

Pianist Frances Waters and
Soprano Val Howels
This week's theme at Glenorchy was lullabies, dreams and moonlight.

On Wednesday this week pianist Frances Waters returned to accompany soprano Val Howels in a series of beautiful dream related songs for the weekly lunchtime concert at Glenorchy United Reformed Church in Exmouth.
Jill King, former deputy head at the local school, was also with us to recice two equally dream like poems half way through the proceedings - and so also to give Val's voice a rest.
There was an intriguing initial warm-up. Val appeared and, with a mischievous smile, played a single note on the piano. Walking to the other side of the hall she let herself into the side room, closed the door, and trilled the note to herself. Even through the closed door the beautiful note was clearly audible all the way to the back of the auditorium - what a vioice.
Once Frances was at the piano we knew that we could expect an extremely skilled and sensitive performace from both musicians, and that's exactly what we received. The first piece was throughly English - 'In the Gloaming'. Written in 1877, the lyric is by Bournemouth poet Meta Orred, the piano accompaniment composed by Lady Arthur HIll (Annie Fortescue Harrison). Val's voice was soft and gentle, but also strong and audible. Even sitting right next to Frances as she played the Venables grand piano I still found that Val's words were clear and audible - and very moving. A credit not only to Val's singing ablility, but also to Frances' incredibly subtle and sensitive piano playing.
Next we had 'American Lullaby' from 1932, the most famous composition by Gladys Rich, the farmer's daughter from Georgia with a day job in a department store in New Jersey. This was a very different song. Val's tone changed completely to the deep relaxed accent of the South. The lullaby reassured a child about the very adult aspects of American life in the 30s. No need to worry about life's needs - "Daddy's a stockbroker" was a typical line. Throughout the recital of all that was good in American family life, Frances maintianed a delicate counterpoint on the piano.
Before the performance there had been an interesting conversation between the members of a French family stationed near the piano. I don't speak French but their discussion was stangely comprehensible. The main point being that they fully expected the 'Schubert' to be 'superbe'. They were not disappointed!
The 1825 song ‘Nacht und Traume’, with words by Matthäus von Collin and piano accompaniment composed by Franz Schubert has a most beguiling lyric, “Kehre wieder, heil'ge Nacht! Holde Träume, kehret wieder!”. Val kindly translated: “Return, o blessed night! Bring back your sweet dreams!” Each word of the song was clear and delicate with long sustains. Frances had to lean very close to read the rather small piano score, but still complemented Val’s singing with great sensitivity, providing a continuous rhythm behind the highly emotional words. The resulting combination of sound and sentiment was utterly heartbreaking for the audience. During the resulting applause Val insisted that the audience direct the appreciation equally to Frances at the piano.
Continuing the alternation between centuries we were then treated to Haydn Wood’s ‘A Brown Bird Sings’ from 1922. Val’s voice was trembling and bird-like, stopping half way through for a beautiful piano intermission. Throughout the song Val seemed almost to be talking to the audience, the gorgeous underlying tune almost unnoticed. As the verse finished Val’s voice rose to a high and powerful last note before giving way to Frances’ gentle conclusion on the piano.
More deep emotion followed, from the Romantic repertoire. ‘Träume’ from Richard Wagner’s 1857 Wesendonck Lieder (poems written by his patron’s wife Mathilde Wesendonck in 1849). Wagner’s fascination with, and attempts to interpret, dreams predated the work of neurologist Sigmund Freud. Träume concerns a dream of Tristan and Isolde. Again Val gave us the lyric in English before singing the German. (Val had been turning on a microphone for her announcements - not necessary for her singing, of course! But it turned out to equally unnecessary for her speaking voice as for her singing.) “Träume, die in jeder Stunde; Jedem Tage schöner blühn; Und mit ihrer Himmelskunde; Selig durchs Gemüte ziehn!” (Dreams weave a spell, fill my soul with peace unknown).
The piano introduction was long and ominous with repeated chords. The song was full of deep feeling building to a passionate crescendo before the very delicate ending on the piano.
When the audience had recovered somewhat, Val ended the first half with a song from Graham
Peal’s 1910 ‘A Country Lover’. With words by Hilaire Belloc, ‘The Early Morning’ is loving and
tender with powerful top notes – perfectly controlled by Val.
While Val had a little rest (well deserved!) Jill maintained the mood with two poems by twentieth century poet Walter de la Mare. ‘Silver’ described the soft silvery luminescence of a moonlit scene. A study in sibilant alliteration, de la Mare’s poem conjured up an irresistible rural night-time scene. ‘No Bed’ took a somewhat different approach, the excitement of children allowed to stay up and explore the local environment at night. Jill gave both poems a clear gentle delivery, the perfect complement to Val’s singing.
After her brief rest, Val came back with ‘Morgen!’ from Richard Strauss’ 1894 Opus 27 of 4 songs. The words are from John Henry Mackay’s poem (meaning ‘Tomorrow!’) Again Val summed up the lyric simply and clearly – on a beach in the early sunrise, “stumm warden wir uns in die Augen schauen, und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen...” (We look into each other’s eyes with no need for words…) The piano introduction this time was the gentle rippling of the waves, gently attenuated as Val started to sing. As the song progressed Frances followed Val on the piano. Each word was begun unaccompanied with Val singing in perfect pitch, before Frances completed the musical phrase on the piano confirming Val’s accuracy – a masterful performance! Frances excelled herself with the extreme delicacy of the final passage on the piano.
Then came the great Romantic, Robert Schumann. His 1840 song 'Mondnacht' is a setting of Josef Karl Benedikt von Eichendorff’s poem from the Geistliche Gedichte (Spiritual Poems). “der Himmel die Erde stilt ge kusst” (The sky kisses the earth…) This was a haunting melody both for voice and piano. Trembling single notes gave way to chords on the piano before returning to single notes for a lingering ending. If Val hadn’t told us afterwards that she and Frances had been out of time with each other by a whole bar at some point in the song, no one would have guessed. Whenever it happened the recovery was so perfect that it passed without notice.
1892: Reynaldo Hahn’s setting of Paul Verlaine’s ‘L’Heure Exquise’ (The Exquisite Hour), one of his seven ‘Chansons Grises’ (Grey Songs). Inspired by the work of painter Antoine Watteau, this song describes two lovers meeting on a moonlit evening, by a black willow and a reflective pond – and ‘vast peace’. Val surprised us yet again by singing the lyric sweetly in perfect French.
Some more of the poetry of Walter de la Mare followed, but this time sung by Val. Victor Hely Hutchinson’s 1927 setting of ‘Dream Song’. A very different voice for this, almost like a number from a musical. A child sleeps and dreams – of lions roaring! A very special element was a section played by Frances with both hands confined within only one octave of the piano keyboard – and incredibly delicately.
Finally to bring us back to earth Val gave us Harold Fraser Simpson’s 1924 setting of
A. A. Milne’s ‘Chrisopher Robin is Saying his Prayers’. Val’s sense of fun and love for children was obvious throughout this song. You could easily imagine her singing for a group of entranced schoolchildren. Every word was clearly and humorously delivered.

Choice of works, skill, emotion, harmony of voice and piano – full marks all round. This was a really special recital.  So very special thanks to Frances, Val and Jill for this ‘superbe’ performance!

Next week’s Glenorchy lunchtime concert? On Wednesday 1 December soprano Rosemary Henry will be accompanied by Josephine Pickering on the piano and – Phil Henry playing the cor anglais - I can hardly wait!

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