Sunday, 30 January 2011

Jacqueline and Wensleigh Palmer at Glenorchy 26th January

Husband and Wife Team
Organist/Pianist Wensleigh Palmer
Mezzo Soprano Jacqueline Palmer
This week the lunchtime concert at Glenorchy United Reformed Church was billed as 'organ and soprano voice' (Wensleigh and Jacqueline Palmer).  In practice we heard 'piano and voice' alternating with solo organ pieces played by Wensleigh.
Wensleigh and Jacqueline are well known in Exeter where they are members of the Sidwell Street Methodist Church.  Wensleigh has been organist and choirmaster there for 34 years.  Jacqueline is a professional soprano regularly taking the solo part at concerts in Exeter and further afield.  Currently she is working with other soloists from Norway.  On Wednesday we enjoyed one of the many recitals Wensleigh and Jacqueline perform together.
They started with a poem written by the Bishop of Lincoln, William Fuller and set to music by Henry Purcell for inclusion in Henry Playford's 'Harmonia Sacra' ('Sacred Hymns') in 1693.  'Lord, what is Man?' expresses wonder at the Christian concept that human's, although little more than worms, should be ruled by a god who would 'give up his wondrous abode' and die for their benefit.  Initially Jacqueline expressed the the intense sadness of Man's lowly state. her voice was deep and rich and expressed the sentiment perfectly.  She sang the first verse mainly unaccompanied, with only occasional chords from Wensleigh on the paino.  Jacqueline then described the consolation of Christian belief in song in a very personal and engaging way, leading systematically to the final repeated cry of exultation, "Hallelujah!".
Wensleigh then played us J S Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D minor' or 'Dorian Tocccata' for organ.  (He's pictured holding the score above.)   The nickname for the piece refers to the absence of any sharps or flats in the key signature (where you would expect a B flat in D minor).  This would normally be associated with D Dorian mode.  (Dorian mode of notation was developed by the Dorian tribe of ancient Greece and would normally sound a little odd to a modern listener - imagine the scale of E major with f,g,c and d natural instead of sharp.)  Bach, however, provides the familiar modern D minor notation by adding flats as he goes along.  The historical issues of notation became irrelevant when Wensleigh played, of course.  The music was lively and full of joy from the outset.  The toccata and fugue involved wonderfully complicated triple couterpoint in three registers including, of course, the pedal keyboard which Wensleigh played with impressive skill.  Sadly, most of the audience would not have been able to see his fancy footwork, but they certainly enjoyed the resulting sound.
Having enjoyed two great baroque pieces, we were then transported to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for a selection of romantic and modern music.  Wensleigh was back at the piano to accompany Jacqueline in Gabriel Fauré's 'Chanson du Pêcheur' ('Ma belle amie est morte') from 1872.  This is Fauré's arrangement of a famous song from 1841 'Into the grave she takes with her my soul'.  Originally written by Théophile Gautier for his opera 'Les Wilis' (now called 'Giselle') it was reworked by  in the same year as 'Sur les Lagunes', the third mélodie in Hector Berlioz' sextet 'Les Nuits d'Été'.  The fisherman laments the death of his sweetheart and asks himself how he can return to sea without her love.  This song was written for mezzo soprano Pauline Viardot.  Ironically five year's later Pauline's daughter Marianne became engaged to Gabriel but then broke off the engagement leaving Gabriel as heart-broken as the poor Pêcheur.  Jacqueline's performance was extremely moving and her French very clear and easy for us English-speakers to understand.  ('Ma bell amie est morte, Je pleurerai toujours.')  Jacqueline was very convincing as a devastated and distracted lover.
Jacqueline's next song was from Camille Saint-Saëns' 1877 opera 'Samson and Delilah', one of the greatest mezzo-soprano arias, 'Mon Coeur s'Ouvre à ta Voix' ('My Heart Opens Itself to your Voice').  Samson battles through the storm to hear Delilah's seductive song.  Wensleigh evoked the storm very effectively on the piano while Jacqueline's singing was suitably seductive, bordering on tempestuous, but hinting at the underlying deceit of Delilah who hopes to discover the secret of Samson's strength.
Next Wensleigh provided some romantic music for organ, Gabriel Marie's 1887 'La Cinquantaine' ('The Golden Wedding').  This was originally written for 'cello and piano, with other later arrangements including one for octet.  The theme was familiar, and rather like a jolly hornpipe, played in a high register with a very French sound.  Meanwhile Wensleigh maintained a gentle soft rhythm in the bass - more fancy footwork!  Wensleigh made several deft changes of register even changing to full organ and back.  An organist truly has to be a multi-tasker!  At one point the score slipped off the stand and fell into two pieces.  I was sure disaster must be imminent, but Wensleigh calmly continued playing from memory using his feet and one hand while he made a very professional job of retrieving the fluttering pages with the other hand.
Wensleigh returned to the (relatively) less taxing task of piano accompaniment for one of Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Four Last Songs'.  These were written during the last four years of Vaughan Williams' life (1954-58).  Although relatively modern the collection starts with two songs on classical themes.  We heard the first which is 'Procris', the story of the classical tragedy of the couple Cephalus and Procris.  The words were written by Vaughan Williams' wife, the poet Ursula Wood.  Her inspiration was the fifteenth century painting 'The Death of Procris' ('A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph') by Italian renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo.  Procris, suspecting her husband of infidelity, follows him on the hunt and he accidentally kills her.  Ironically Ursula's life was quite the opposite.  Ralph and Ursula were only married in 1953, following the death of his first wife Adeline.  After Ralph's death Ursula lived another fifty years and became Ralph's biographer and president of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.  She completed her own biography in 2002 and lived until October 2007.  This song was in English, of course, and Jacqueline's descriptive powers were demonstrated magnificently.  Having set the scene, the description of Procris' fatal symptoms lead relentlessly and tragically to her sudden and terrible death.
Jacqueline knew not only how to take us to the depths of despair, but how to bring us back again as well.  She took us back in time slightly to 1941 for a Broadway number by Kurt Weil.  Weil is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Bertoit Brecht such as the 'Threepenny Opera' which we enjoyed at the Northcott Theatre on the Exeter University campus in October 2000.  'One Life to Live' is an aria from the first act of Weil's collaboration with lyricist Ira Gershwin, 'Lady in the Dark'.  Liza Elliott, editor of fashion magazine 'Allure' is undergoing the new treatment of 'psychoanalysis'.  Unlike the composer of the opening song of this concert, Henry Purcell, she does not believe in an afterlife and insists that every moment we have should be used to full benefit.  The emphasis is on having fun and that is reflected in the lyrics: a party? be the host of it! a haunted house? be the ghost of it! a town? be the toast of it!  Gershwin is really having fund with his rhymes, the best of which must be 'Send old man depression into obliv' . . .' (' . . . only one life to live!').  Wensleigh stayed very much in the background for this song while Jacqueline really enjoyed herself - and so did we!
How to finish such a wonderfully varied programme of songs and organ music?  Wensleigh had the perfect thing.  Felix Mendelssohn's Third Sonata for organ from his six sonatas Opus 65.  Mendelssohn was a great admirer of the music of J S Bach.  (He was the first to put on a performance of the Matthew Passion after Bach's death - 80 years after his Bach's death!)  The third sonata is based on Bach's Lutheran cantata 'Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir' ('Out of deep distress I cry to you') which, having been written in 1724, took us back almost to our starting point.  Despite the rather tragic sounding title of Bach's original work, Mendelssohn's version was anything but.  The chorale was in the form of a complex and sometimes frenetic fugue which was equally fast and frantic in the pedal register.  Hands and feet in perfect synchrony.  Wensleigh was now also using yet another control.  One foot was needed to vary the swell for maximum effect.  The wild and raucous pedal line used the full range down to the very lowest note while Wensleigh calmly changed stops every few bars to bring different registers in and out of the music.  Between them Felix and Wensleigh showed us just about everything the organ could do.  Those who were too far away to see everything that was going on at the console just relaxed and enjoyed the extraordinary and wonderful music.
As the last triumphant notes died away David Lee, the organiser of these marvellous concerts, came forward to congratulate both performers on a thoroughly enjoyable programme.  Being an organist himself he had to say that he wished the organ could be raised up at least six feet so we could all have seen Wensleigh's incredible skill.  (The same could be said for the other organists, Robert Millington who was at Glenorchy on 12th January and David himself who gave us a recital of organ and piano on 3rd November last year.)
Very sincere thanks and congratulations to Jacqueline and Wensleigh Palmer for a wonderfully varied and enjoyable concert.

This week we can see another singer at Glenorchy.  Baritone Iain McDonald:

Wednesday 2nd February 12.30 pm
Michelle Banting and Iain McDonald
(piano and baritone voice)
Glenorchy United Reformed Church, Exmouth

Advance publicity suggested that we might hear Ruth Avis (flute) and Rebecca Willson (piano) supporting Iain but, sadly, we won't be able to hear Ruth or Rebecca on 2nd February.

However, for all those people who love the flute playing of Ruth Avis (as featured on Phonic FM) there is a concert on 5th March, also in Exmouth, where Ruth will appear.  The 'Piazzolla Duo' of Ruth Avis and guitarist Clive Betts will perform an evening of 'Tango and Celtic' music for flute and guitar:

Tango and Celtic Music for Flute and Guitar
Holy Trinity Church, Exmouth
Saturday 5th March 7.30pm

More details nearer the time on this site
and on Phonic FM's 'Classical Journey' programme
(10-12am every Tuesday).

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