Friday, 8 April 2011

Soprano Baritone and Piano Wednesday 6 April

This week's vocal soloists
soprano Val Howels
baritone John Brindley

and pianist Frances Waters

Following the resounding success of their last concert at Glenorchy at the end of November last year (see Dreamy Songs and Poems) soprano Val Howels and pianist Frances Waters returned with a new and exciting programme.  The most noticeable development was the appearance of a new face, and voice, in the line-up.  John Brindley, a wonderful baritone singer, added his musical skill to the already impressive combination of Val and Frances.
Although Val and John planned to take turns in singing during the concert, they started with a duet.  Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Dorset Song' ('Linden Lea') became very popular, and lucrative for him, after its first airing in1902 in the remote village of Hooton Roberts where his Cambridge chums Nick and Ivor Gatty lived.  'Linden Lea' was really only a PhD project for Ralph, when he was at Cambridge, and he was very embarrassed when it became so popular.  However, the sentiments it expresses have remained a delight to subsequent generations up to the present day.  In Wednesday's performance, Val's soprano harmony contrasted with and complemented John's baritone perfectly.  The whole piece was vivacious and joyful from start to finish, with Frances' steady piano accompaniment adding to its sweetness.
By a strange coincidence Val's choice for her first solo songs were three of Sir Edward Elgar's 'Sea Pictures', a series of poems which Elgar originally set to music for soprano voice but later transposed to contralto with orchestral accompaniment for their première performance by Clara Butt at the 1899 Norwich festival.   Appropriately to this week's concert, Clara subsequently (in 1900) married, and became performing partner to, baritone Kennerly Rumford.  Furthermore, she was appointed DBE in the 1920 civilian war honours - making her Dame Clara Butt-Rumford.
Possibly without knowing it, Val was giving us a delightful preview of the a forthcoming performance of the entire song cycle, which will be sung by mezzo soprano Alison Kettlewell with the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra in Exeter Cathedral next Thursday (14 April).  
Val's first selection, 'In Haven' (with words by Edward Elgar's wife Alice), warned of storms but was surprising gentle, with a delicious descending note at the end of the verse.  The lovely finish to the whole piece was, however, reserved for Frances on the piano. Then Val sang Elgar's setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Sabbath Morning st Sea', in a soft but ominous voice.  Even as she described the anguish of the storm her enunciation was beautiful, softening, only to build in power again.  The fiercest verses were still lovely - as was Frances' vigorous ending on the piano - which Val joined in applauding.  Finally Elgar's setting of Richard Garnet's 'Where Corals Lie' opened with a soft syncopated piano theme leading into a gentle and dreamy vocal section which sweetly delivered a series of lovely compliments to the listener.
John then took Val's place on the stage for a selection of songs from the Victorian and Edwardian eras - a time when emotion and sentiment were very popular.  He started with a song by Launceston man, Wilfrid Sanderson.  Sanderson's 'Until' was a 1910 setting of Edward Lockton (aka Teschemacher)'s poem, "No rose in all the world until you came."  This very emotional ode to a lover sung with great pathos by John, but always under control.  Frances' support on the piano was responsive but unobtrusive.
Going back in time, John traded one intense emotion for another.  J. Airlie Dix's 1904 setting of J. Francis Barron's 'The Trumpeter' was a rousing tale of adventure and daring, based on the experiences of the Boer War.  Frances produced the fanfares on the piano and John sang three verses on the theme of bugle calls.  A description of early morning in camp led to 'Reveille', the excitement of battle led to 'Charge' and, finally, in the miserable aftermath of slaughter, the sad sound of 'Rally to the Chief'.  The last 'Rally' was made to sound triumphant, by suggesting that the dead will be 'rallied' to the angel Gabriel.  A very questionable sentiment, but beautifully portrayed.
Going forward again to 1914, John sang Oley Speaks' setting of Clinton Scollard's 'Sylvia'.  John's sensual description of Sylvia was loving and warm.  Sylvia sounds gorgeous!
In a similar vein, but from a different time and place, Val's next song 'Jeg Elsker Dig' was written by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in 1864.  The words are by Grieg's contemporary and friend, Hans Christian Anderson.  Anderson's words are actually in Danish but mean pretty much the same in Norwegian - "I love you".  The object of Grieg's affection was, of course, his future wife Nina Hagerup.  They married three years later (at their future home of Troldhaugen).  Glenorchy regulars will recall that Jill Govier played Grieg's lyrical piano celebration of that day, 'Wedding Day at Troldhaugen', at Glenorchy on 16 March.
Grieg, like Schumann before him, composed initially for the 'only true interpreter' of his music - his future wife.  I couldn't tell whether Val was singing in Norwegian or Danish, but the sentiments were beautifully and clearly expressed whatever the language.  (Val had given us a brief translation beforehand, which helped a great deal!)  Val's delivery was rapturous, almost tearful, and the audience couldn't help being carried along.
Continuing the 'modern languages masterclass', Val moved straight into Gioachino Rossini's 'La Chanson du Bébé'.  As Val explained, Rossini stopped writing major operas in about 1830 and started to write comic songs for his friends.  This very irreverent song expresses the words of a naughty child, playing its parents against each other and demanding jam and other treats, while ending each verse with fake sneezes ('because he knows it teases' one imagines) and a final triumphant cry of 'poo-poo!'  It was fortunate that Val gave a detailed translation before embarking but, even without it, the story would have been pretty clear.  John stood in as 'papa' and Sue Tyler was dragged from the audience to take the part of 'maman'.  Their mimed responses left us in no doubt about where the conversation was going.  Val herself was hilarious as the 'bébé'.  As has happened before, I found that I was sitting next to a visitor from France - the ultimate test.  The uncontrolled laughter from my left confirmed that Val had passed!
As the scandalised John and Sue withdrew, Val stepped forward to sing another number.  In the excitement she had forgotten that the 'Chanson' was her last solo song.  John, however, had two more solo pieces for us.  The first was 'The Sentry's Song' from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1882 comic opera 'Iolanthe' ('The Peer and the Peri').  Act Two of this satire on the Victorian government and electoral system opens with the sentry at the Palace of Westminster, Private Willis, pondering the workings of democracy in the Victorian British Parliament. A lot of his comments are just as relevant today, and John went further by adding his own words about 'Nick and Dave' which came as quite a surprise to anyone who wasn't expecting it.  John acted the part of the sentry perfectly - he never forgot he was 'holding' an imaginary rifle, and executed a perfect 'order arms' at the conclusion.  John's seriousness, and disgust at the failings of MPs, added to the wonderful comic effect.
Just to put us all back in a romantic mood, John finished his final set with another poem by 'Teschemacher' (Edward Lockton), this time set to music by Alan Murray in 1936.  'I'll walk beside you' is a gentle reverie describing a lovely walk with a lovely girl.  John's singing was tender and extatic, ending with rapturous delicacy.
Finally Val, John and Frances joined forces for Helen Taylor's prayer in poem, 'Bless the House'.  Set to music by May Brahe in 1927, this song was made popular by Irish Tenor John Mc Cormack (who changed the name to 'Bless this House').  The counterpoint between the voices of Val and John, and Frances' piano playing, worked together perfectly as they systematically invoked blessing on each part of the house (chimney, roof, windows etc) and everyone 'dwelling within'.  McCormack was right to think that such forthright sentiments would appeal to a wide and varied audience.

Thank you and well done:
Frances Waters, Val Howels, John Brindley
The audience at Glenorchy thoroughly enjoyed the whole performance.  The quality of music at Glenorchy never seems to falter.  Credit must go to David Lee who organises the series, and has performed concerts himself at the piano and organ.  But the praise this week was mainly for Val and John for their wonderful singing - and for Frances' piano playing, exemplary as always.  Val even presented Frances with a bouquet to express the gratitude of all.

Good show!

Next week at Glenorchy? - Recorder ensemble!

Glenorchy Lunchtime Concerts
Glenorchy Church Exmouth
Wednesday 13 April 12.30pm
The Courtenay Players
Judith Belam
Angela Chapman,
Janet Drake-Law
Cath Palmer-Wills
Admission Free

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