Monday, 11 April 2011

Rebecca Smith, Elgar and Britten, Saturday 26 March

Mezzo Soprano Rebecca Smith sings Elgar and Britten
At the Church of St John the Baptist, Broadclyst
Pianist John Scarfe assisted by his wife Jean
The music of Edward Elgar is being performed quite a lot just now.  Last Week, at Glenorchy, Val Howels sang a selection from his Opus 37, 'Sea Pictures'.  On Thursday this week we can enjoy the whole of 'Sea Pictures', sung by Alison Kettlewell, with the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra and Choir, at Exeter Cathedral.  On Saturday 7 May Elgar's Opus 38, 'The Dream of Gerontius' will be sung, at St Paul's Tiverton, by another mezzo soprano, Frances Bourne, with tenor, Iain Milne, Bass, James Arthur, the East Devon Choral Society and the Exeter Chamber Choir with a full symphony orchestra conducted by Andrew Daldorph!! (Watch out for more information on that one as the time approaches.)

A large audience at the Church of St John the Baptist, Broadclyst, enjoyed Elgar's Sea pictures recently, sung by yet another wonderful mezzo soprano, Rebecca Smith.  Rebecca is a native of Devon.  She graduated in music at Trinity College of Music in London (not to be confused with Trinity College, Cambridge, where Broadclyst Rector, Rev Michael Partridge's daughters Hannah and Bethany will be taking their degrees . . . ).  She is now a member of the Glynbourne Festival Chorus and Touring Opera and has performed in many operas - Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Purcell.  She has played Wigmore Hall, St Martin's-in-the-Fields, the Queen's Concert Rooms, Hanover Square et c. - not to mention our own Exeter Cathedral where Rebecca performed 'Carols in the Cathedral' with Exeter Philharmonic Choir and Cathedral organist Andrew Millington.

In six weeks time Rebecca returns to the Cathedral to sing Beethoven's Mass in C and J. S. Bach's 'Magnificat', again with the Exeter Philharmonic Choir and Andrew Millington.  Regular listeners to 'Classical Journey' on Phonic FM, and 'Coffee and Music' concerts at Broadclyst, knew they didn't have to wait that long to hear Rebecca's lovely voice. On Saturday 26 March, at 10.30 in the morning, 'Coffee and Music' presented Rebecca Smith (Mezzo Soprano) accompanied by John Scarfe (Piano).

Rebecca sang the whole cycle of five songs starting with 'Sea Slumber Song' with words by Hon. Roden Noel.  Rebecca's voice is incredibly low and resonant and this song includes very low notes, especially for the final "Good - Night".  'In Haven' by Elgar's wife Alice (originally 'Love alone will Stay') her description of a building storm reflects the urgency of love.  Rebecca was even more impassioned in Elgar's setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sabbath Morning at Sea' where the line, "And, on that sea co-mixed with fire . . . The full Godhead's burning!" was delivered with full force.  'Where Corals Lie" (Richard Garnett) was full of yearning, carried into Rebecca's high upper range.  Finally 'The Swimmer', by Adam Lindsay Gordon, was surprisingly vehement.  Like the previous song, this was not as familiar as the other three.  Gordon was Australian and his descriptions of sea storms are likely to have been inspired by the coastal waters of his home in Melbourne.  Once again the description of storm flung waves ("oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,") is a vehicle for impassioned talk of - love!

Having completed Elgar's five 'Sea Pictures' in style, Rebecca moved on to another cycle of five songs written a century later in 1947.  The composer, Benjamin Britten, had recently moved into his new home of Crag House in Aldeburgh.  Kathleen Ferrier had made his new opera 'The Rape of Lucretia' a great hit, and her understudy, Nancy Evans, had worked with Britten and tenor Peter Pears to establish the, now famous, Aldeburgh Festival.  In gratitude Britten dedicated his Opus 41  'A Charm of Lullabies' to Nancy and she sang the première in The Hague, with Felix de Nobel at the piano, the following year.  The odd title was thought up by Aldeburgh librettist Eric Crozier - although he did not write any of the lyrics!  Britten, by the way, never became a 'Sir' like Elgar. He refused his knighthood.  However, rather ironically, in 1976 just before he died, he did accept a life peerage, and is now remembered as Baron Britten of Aldeburgh.

It was interesting to see the five ways in which different poets have captured the essence of a lullaby - and how Britten encapsulated each in music.  William Blake's 'A Cradle Song' is fairly predictable song of 'sweet dreams' and 'happy sleep' with a slight christian overlay.  Robert Burns, writing much earlier, in the late eighteenth century came up with a very odd song - certainly as Rebecca sang it in Britten's arrangement.  The odd half-English-half-Scots dialect opens the lyric with a protracted, "Hee balou - ou - ou . . . " ("Call 'Lullaby y y . . .'") before expressing the hope that 'Sweet Wee Donald' will live long and prosper - as a horse thief!  A very odd lullaby for a law-abiding exciseman like Burns.  There was an interesting typographical error to the next song, attributing it to the twentieth century English Poet Robert Graves, who died in 1985 at the age of 90.  However, the poem, 'Sephestia's Lullaby' was not written by him, but by Robert Greene - in the sixteenth century.  This song to a 'wanton' child is somewhat different to Burns'.  The child is told repeatedly not to weep - because he'll have plenty to cry about when he's older!

Rebecca is very expressive in her singing, fully acting out the feelings and ideas expressed in the poems.  The fourth poem, 'A Charm' by seventeenth century poet, Thomas Arnold, brought a new character which was surprising and very disturbing.  'A Charm' is anything but charming.  Whoever the poor child was, the method of getting him to go to sleep was to shout, "Quiet!",  "Sleep!" and bombard him with terrifying threats, mainly supernatural - more of a curse than a charm.  Rebecca did not hold back.  Although we assume it was all acting, and that she would never talk to her own children like that, for a few minutes she was truly terrifying.  Following the apparent progression in the poems to that point, one might expect the last 'lullaby' to involve threats of violence, but in fact it is John Philips' tender sixteenth century poem 'A Nurse's Song'.  Rebecca gently repeated the last two syllables of 'lullaby' in a hypnotic rhythm and reassured baby that the gods - and nurse - would shield and comfort, and tend 'as duly as may be'.


Rebecca's performance of both song cycles was highly polished and professional, and full of little personal touches which endeared her to her audience.  Naturally everyone hoped there might be a little something extra to finish off the recital.  They weren't disappointed.  Her encore was Madelaine Dring's setting of 'It was a Lover and his Lass' from Shakespeare's 'As You Like It'.  Madelaine Dring's musical settings are very popular with singers and audiences.  Glenorchy regulars will recall that soprano Alison Burnett is also a fan, and sang this lovely song, accompanied by Nicky Perry, at their concert on 16 February.  Rebecca's version was equally enjoyable - lively and joyful, and bounding with energy.

Thank you so much!
Thank you very much Rebecca, for taking time out from your busy professional schedule to bring your beautiful music home to the people of Devon.  Thanks also to Broadclyst Parish Church organist John Scarfe who accompanied Rebecca so beautifully and made a beautiful spring morning into a joyful musical occasion.

Don't forget that Elgar's 'Sea Pictures' are getting another airing on Thursday this week (14 April) when mezzo Alison Kettlewell will sing all five songs at Exeter Cathedral, with the accompaniment of the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra, before singing the wonderful Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony with soprano Catherine Hamilton.

And we don't have to wait long to hear Rebecca again.  She will be at the Cathedral on Thursday 26 May to sing Beethoven's Mass in C major and J. S. Bach's Magnificat in D with the Exeter Philharmonic Choir and organist Andrew Millington.

Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra
Exeter Cathedral
Thursday 14 April 7.30pm
Elgar: Sea Pictures
Mezzo-Soprano Alison Kettlewell

Mahler: Symphony No 2 "Resurrection"
Soprano Catherine Hamilton,
Mezzo-Soprano Alison Kettlewell
with the Exeter Music Group Singers
Conductor: Marion Wood, Leader Clare Smith (q.v.)
Tickets: £8-15 Phoenix: 667080

Rebecca Smith Singing Elgar and Britten
Coffee and Music at Broadclyst Parish Church
Last Saturday (26 March)
Exeter Philharmonic Choir
Exeter Cathedral Thursday 26 May 7.30pm
Bach & Beethoven
Organist: Andrew Millington
Mezzo Soprano: Rebecca Smith
Beethoven: Mass in C
J. S. Bach: Magnificat in D
Tickets: £9,11,14,17,20 (student subtract £2)
Supper Club £40

No comments:

Post a Comment