Thursday, 24 February 2011

Alison Burnett and Nicky Perry at Glenorchy 16 February

In fine voice: pianist Nicky Perry accompanies soprano Alison Burnett
There was some disappointment at  Glenorchy last week as the advertised performers were unable to come to Exmouth to provide the music.  Singing teacher Alison Burnett had been hoping to bring her singing students from St Margaret's School in Exeter to give a public performance.  Unfortunately their academic work took precedence.  Quite equal to the challenge, Alison prepared a selection of songs to sing herself, and local pianist Nicky Perry very kindly joined her at the piano.
Alison started with Purcell's 'Shakespearian' piece 'If Music be the Food of Love'.  Mark Padmore had sung this at Dartington the previous week with the Britten Sinfonia.  It was interesting to compare Mark's tenor voice and Alison's soprano.  Mark's voice had been deep and passionate.  Alison was just as passionate and her singing voice was full and strong with very clear diction.  The voice part had much more tune than the piano and used Alison's full range of pitch of volume.  Alison explained afterwards that there are three versions of Purcell's song and she had been treating us to the most elaborate version - I think we noticed.
That first number established quite clearly what the theme of the lunchtime concert would be - 'English Love Songs'.  Alison had eleven more beautiful love songs for us, two by a composer she particularly admires, Madeleine Dring.
Alison started with three songs very different from each other.  First was an aria from Thomas Arne's late baroque 1749 opera 'The Judgement of Paris': 'O Ravishing Delight' based on the Greek myth about the disaster which follows the decision of the future King Paris of Troy about which goddess, Hera, Athena or Aphrodite was the most beautiful.  Alison's singing was certainly beautiful.  The volume was held back as she varied the tempo of her singing in response to complex figures on the piano.
Both of the first two songs have previously been performed by young soprano Bethany Partridge at Broadclyst Church on 6 November last year for a morning concert, and recorded by her technically minded father Michael.  We can hear Bethany singing those songs again on the 'Classical Journey' before too long.
Next was something much more modern.  'If', based on the diary of Anne Frank,with words by Roger Pulvers, was set to music by a living composer, Michael Nyman (67 next month) for Selya Araki's 1995 animated film 'The Diary of Anne Frank'.  To a backing of gentle piano Alison expressed all the loneliness and longing of a girl forced to live in hiding from totalitarian forces.
Deviating slightly from the 'English' theme the next song was a Broadway number set in Hungary, and expressing a slightly different sentiment.  'Will He Like Me?' from the 1963 musical 'She Loves me' has words by Sheldon Harnick (now 87) set to music by Jerry Bock (died November last year, age 79).  Amalia Balash works in a perfume shop in Budapest and has a pen-pal who turns out to be her colleague Georg Nowack.  Alison, as Amalia, waits to meet her 'mystery' pen-pal.  With very careful control of pitch she opened with words almost like normal speech, and full of uncertianty and diffidence.  The last line expressed her terrible loneliness and Alison's expression was totally convincing.
Next, to France, and a song by Parisian jazz pianist Michel Nyman (now 79) who is perhaps most famous for his setting of 'Windmills of Your Mind' by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (now 85 and 81) which opened the 1968 film 'The Thomas Crown Affair'.  Alison sang Michel's setting of a lyric by the same authors, 'Magic', which is about love that insidiously lost its magic.  Michel played piano for a recorded performance of 'Magic' with Kiri Te Kanawa in 1992.  Each phrase is sung to a descending series of notes which beautifully contrasted Alison's high and low range, the lower notes rich and romantic - but of course very sad.
The next song was unaccompanied, definitely English, and fitted the 'love' theme - simply because Alison loves it!  The composer, Eastbourne pianist Michael Head belonged to a slightly earlier generation, born in 1900 and living until 1976. 'The Singer' is his 1938 setting of Bronnie Taylor's poem 'I Met a Singer on the Hill'.  Alison started straight into this song after 'Magic' without a break, despite the change of key.  Her voice was high and soft - haunting and lingering. The sentiment was very touching as she recalls offering the singer gold to stay with her, but he walks off to the sound of laughter.  The tune was very complicated, but just right, and a lot for Alison to remember with no help from Nicky at the piano.  The ending was very complex and very lovely.
The first Madeleine Dring song was 'It was a Lover and his Lass'.  Madeleine Dring was also definitely English, being from North London.  She was 23 years younger than Michael Head, but sadly died only a year after him.  This theme from Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' has been set to music by many composers including Frederick Delius (1919), Gerald Finzi (1940) and even Ernest Moeran (the same year).  Madeleine Dring's version was very comical with the complicated internal rhymes worked perfectly by Alison.  Nicky's piano playing was very sensitive to the subtle play on words in the lyric, only giving way to a solid crescendo at the end, to finish with a bang.
Roger Quilter belonged to an even earlier generation.  An Eton student born in Hove in 1877, he published copious song collections until the stress of life as a covert homosexual, compounded by the loss of his nephew in the Second World War led to mental health problems which affected him until his death a few years later at the age of 75.  Alison chose one of Quilter's most popular settings, his 1905 'Love's Philosophy' with words by Percy Shelley, written a century earlier.  The theme of being unable to appreciate the wonders of nature, if denied a kiss from a loved one, is very sad but the piano accompaniment is complex and thrilling.  Nicky performed it masterfully and ended exultantly.  Meanwhile Alison's part took her to the top of her range, filling the Church with impassioned sound.
Coming back to Madeleine Dring's generation Alison sang Benjamin Britten's setting of his contemporary, W. H. Auden's, 'Tell Me the Truth about Love' which was the first of Britten's 1939 collection of four settings of Auden poems called 'Cabaret Songs', composed for Hedli Anderson.  Incidentally, the second, 'Funeral Blues' ('Stop all the Clocks') has since been made famous by the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' which came out in 1994, 14 years after the song cycle was finally published.  Britten and Auden also suffered as a result of their homosexuality and this is reflected in the strange and disturbing words of 'Tell Me the Truth about Love'.  Auden runs though a long list of unlikely similes, asking  if any corresponds to what love is like, and suggesting that the experience is totally alien and unknown.  Alison and Nicky added to the confusion of the words with Britten's oddly synchopated piano rhythm and Alison's coquettish delivery, complete with confused facial expression.
Alison then moved forward a generation again.  Birmingham-born filmscore writer Stanley Myers died in 1993 at the age of 63.  He is most famous for the piano tune without words 'Cavatina' which appeared in a guitar arrangement in the film 'The Deer Hunter' in 1978 played by John Williams, who had previously performed the same music for an earlier film in 1970.  Williams also collaborated with jazz singer Cleo Laine in 1973 in a version with her own words - 'He Was Beautiful'.  Nicky played the accompaniment as originally intended, on the piano.  The tune was simple and gorgeous, as Myers would have wished.  As the slow languid tune progressed it became softer and softer towards a feather light finish.  A very special moment.
For the last two songs Alison came forward off the stage and stood by the piano.  First she sang the 1953 hit originally written for Ella Fitzgerald by American songwriter Arthur Hamilton, but not heard publicly until 1955 when it was recorded by Hamilton's old school-chum (and by that time actress and singer) Julie London.  London repeated the performance to telling effect for the film 'The Girl Can't Help It' a year later.  The song, 'Cry Me a River', is still well known in this country today, having been re-recorded by Joe Cocker in 1970 and again by Mari Wilson in 1973.  Winter sports fans will remember it from the BBC coverage of last year's Vancouver Olympics.  Hamilton's mastery of counterpoint is reflected in the beautiful piano scoring which tells its own story.  Alison gave us the full force of the anger towards the hypocritical lover, as intended by Hamilton.  The accusations almost seemed personal!  (See main picture above.)
A bouquet for the pianist
(and a very floral soprano -
clock those floral stilettos
brought from Malaysia!)
The final song had to be by Alison's favourite songwriter, Madeleine Dring.  'Song of a Nightclub Proprietress'  is the second of Dring's 1976 'Five Betjeman Songs'.  The words are, needless to say, by Sir John Betjeman.  The first song in that series, 'A Bay in Anglesey' is quite restrained, describing a view across the Menai Straits at tea-time.  Number Two is quite different.  The proprietress comes down in the morning to find a scene of devastation in her already run-down club.  Nicky's piano-playing punctuated a litany of complaints from Alison, who looked utterly appalled by the sight (we imagined) she saw.  Some, including myself might have been thrown by the first complaint - "There was Kümmel on the handle of the door."  The sugary herb liqueur must have gone out of fashion not long after the poem and song were written.  All the other gripes were much more intelligible and the timing between Alison and Nicky was very tight right up to the little piano solo to finish.
Despite arranging her programme at quite short notice, Alison had an encore all ready.  (The demand was there all right!)  We slipped back in time to 1933 for a song from George and Ira Gershwin's musical 'Pardon my English'.   Alison warned us that this tale of the siren mermaid named after the treacherous Loreleifelsen, a huge rocky outcrop on the bank of the Rhine in Germany, would not be along the lines of the respectable version by Franz Liszt from the mid-nineteenth century.  This was a decidedly more saucy version.  Mitzi Maybe gave a particularly ebullient performance of it at Pullabrook on twelfth night (see post 10 January).  Alison delivered the goods with equal comic brilliance to end an overwhelming cornucopia of excellence which was another in the superb Glenorchy lunchtime concert series.  'The Lorelei'!

The next concert will be on Wednesday 2 March when the performers will be local pianist and composer Josephine Pickering accompanied by oboist Julia Hill.

Josephine Pickering (Piano), Julia Hill (Oboe)
Glenorchy United Reformed Church Exmouth Wednesday 2 March 12.30pm
Admission free

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