Elegantly Balanced Selection of Songs and Piano Music from Jondelius and O’Neill

28/04/2016

Finzi, Bowen, Warlock, Sibelius, Grieg, Godfrey, Quilter: Adam Jondelius (baritone), Ella O’Neill (piano), FRMS Weekend, Daventry, 24.4.2016.  (GP-J)

Gerald Finzi (1901-56)Earth and air and rain, Op.15
York Bowen (1884-1961) – Preludes, Op.102 nos 1 23 and 4
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) – Ha’nacker Mill: My own country: Captain Stratton’s Fancy
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) – Flickan kom ifran sin äisklings mote, Op.37 no 5: Svarta
rosor, Op.36 no 1: En flicka sjunger dar, Op.50 no 3
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) – Piano Sonata in E minor, Op.7
Paul Corfield Godfrey (b.1950) – Song of the wanderer, Op.9 no 7: Song of the
prisoner, Op.9 no 6: The seven woods of Coole, Op.44 no 4
Roger Quilter (1877-1953) – Three Shakespeare Songs, Op.6

The Danetree Room of the Mercure Court Hotel in Daventry may not be the most obvious venue for a song recital; indeed its character is that of a typical conference room to be found in most hotels. But the Federation of Recorded Music Societies, meeting for an enjoyable week-end of presentations by distinguished speakers, had brought in a Yamaha grand piano, and engaged two seriously talented young musicians to perform for us – the baritone Adam Jondelius and his pianist partner Ella O’Neill.

Their programme was intriguing; a mixture of British and Scandinavian music, entirely appropriate given that Jondelius is Swedish by birth, but has lived in Britain for many years. They also had the good sense to include some solo piano music, which not only gave Ella O’Neill the chance to shine, but also provided the singer with a couple of much needed breaks in what must have been a physically taxing programme.

The first half consisted of the Finzi song-cycle Earth and Air and Rain, three of York Bowen’s Preludes for piano, and a group of songs by Peter Warlock.  Finzi’s cycle sets ten poems by Thomas Hardy – a poet Finzi kept returning to, and for whom he had the greatest admiration.  For my money, this is one of the finest of all cycles setting English poetry.

What of Adam Jondelius’ voice?  It is well-suited to this music; he has a light, high baritone which is extremely flexible, and capable of the subtlety of nuance that this music calls for.  It’s a brave baritone who gives a recital of this stature at 10.30 on a Sunday morning (I can think of some baritones who haven’t even begun clearing their throats by that hour!), but this young singer seemed impressively undaunted.

Adam has done a great deal of stage-work, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the most memorable performance in this first half, for me, was of the chilling ‘Clock of the Years’, where a spirit conjures up the poet’s dead lover, and winds back the clock so that she becomes ever younger – eventually disappearing altogether.  This was a gripping performance, projecting the poem dramatically and capturing its tragic utterance.  In contrast, the performers did equal justice to the quiet humour of ‘So have I fared’, with its Latin epigrams at the end of each stanza.

Other songs require a greater sense of personal engagement; ‘The Phantom’ is a haunting vision which didn’t quite have the impact it should, while that most delicious of love songs, ‘Lizbie Brown’ needs, despite its lightness of touch, a sense of aching regret.  But these things will come in time to such a sensitive artist, partly through the inevitable process of maturity (or let’s be blunt and call it ‘ageing’!), and partly through closer familiarity.  Adam performed on this occasion with the music in front of him; he has clearly prepared meticulously, and knows the songs intimately, but it’s still true that the copy and the stand risk getting between him and his audience.  There are times when a singer’s eyes and face are an indispensable part of his expressive armoury.

All through this wonderful series of songs, I was aware of the alert and immaculate playing of Ella O’Neill.  Yes, there were some balance problems early on – not the fault of either performer, but rather that of the dry acoustic resulting from a very low ceiling, corporate carpeting etc., and the performers came to terms with the problem quickly as the recital progressed.  The young pianist now took centre stage, and performed three of York Bowen’s superb Preludes of 1938.  Despite the limitations of the instrument, she was a most persuasive advocate, especially in the liquid lyricism of Prelude 23.

The first half concluded with three of Peter Warlock’s best-known songs.  This composer’s emotional and stylistic range were revealed clearly here, from the gently regretful ‘Ha’nacker Mill’, via the forthright simplicity of ‘My Own Country’, and finishing with the rollicking fun of ‘Captain Stratton’s Fancy’ – an ideally good-humoured ending to Part 1.

After the interval, we were first treated to three of the songs of Jean Sibelius.  This part of his output is nowhere near as well-known as the symphonies and other orchestral music.  But singers are increasingly discovering this repertoire, and Adam and Ella gave us passionate and convincing interpretations.  ‘En flicka sjunger där’ – ‘A maiden sang in a field’ – was exquisitely done, the vocal melody floating against a lightly syncopated accompaniment.  But perhaps the most memorable was ‘Svarta roser’ – ‘Black roses’ – a powerful setting of the dark poetry of Ernst Josephson.

Another solo spot for Ella O’Neill followed; remaining in Scandinavian mode, she gave us the lovely Piano Sonata op. 7 of Edvard Grieg, composed when he was in his early twenties.  It shows the strong influence of the music of Schumann and Mendelssohn, though the character of Scandinavian folk music keeps glinting through.  Miss O’Neill gave a meticulous and stylish performance, with plenty of passion and energy; she’s a naturally modest person, and I’d like to see her be more emphatic at big moments – such as the powerful endings of the two biggest movements.  But her sensitivity, sense of poetry, and great rhythmic discipline were all impressive – she is a really fine musician.

Now came what were for me the most intriguing items in the programme; three songs by the Cardiff-based composer Paul Corfield Godfrey, who was present in the audience.  Two of these settings were of texts by J.R.R. Tolkien, which harmonised very well with the Scandinavian theme of the previous items – giants, trolls and other supernatural beings are never very far away in Grieg or Sibelius, and the same applies of course to Tolkien – with knobs on.  Godfrey has long been an admirer of this author’s works; he has set many of them to music, including an entire operatic cycle based on the stories of The Silmarillion.  I earnestly hope we’ll see these staged one fine day; apart from anything else it would be a welcome corrective to those Peter Jackson movies.

The first two songs featured in this programme come from Godfrey’s op.9 cycle ‘Seven Tolkien Songs’.  ‘The Song of the Wanderer’ begins ‘Roads go ever ever on, under rock and under tree’, to which Godfrey responds with an undulating vocal line that perfectly reflects the poetic idea.  Along the way, there are magical touches, such as the dark shift of harmony at the words ‘under mountains in the moon’.  Jondelius’ supple tones were perfect for this evocative number, and the expressive postlude for the piano was beautifully played by O’Neill.

‘The Song of the Prisoner’ (‘In Western lands beneath the sun’) came as a complete contrast, the singer sometimes using a parlando style of utterance, and the piano setting the scene with dark, heavy chords.

After these two images of Middle Earth, we moved, for the third of Godfrey’s songs, to Ireland, and to W.B.Yeats’s ‘Seven Woods of Coole.’  The setting comes from another cycle, this one entitled ‘Mysteries of Time’.  Yeats’s words sing out all by themselves, and Godfrey has clearly been inspired to a passionate statement. Starting low down in the baritone voice, the melodic line achieves great power of declamation, borne along on thrilling waves of piano arpeggios.

And, as in the Tolkien songs, there is a deliciously elusive ending – soft, dense chords at the bottom of the piano, the final one quietly affirmative.

This is a composer of considerable gifts, who chooses wonderful texts and has a rich understanding of the human voice and its capacities.  It is enormously frustrating (most of all for the composer himself!) that none of this music is to my knowledge as yet in the recorded catalogue.  I just hope an enterprising company will soon find the opportunity to correct that situation.

The morning recital ended with satisfying performances of Roger Quilter’s well-known Three Shakespeare Songs, op.6.  An immensely rewarding concert, then, and also a great achievement for the talented young duo. This was a highly demanding programme, which gave us ample opportunity to savour not only a wide-ranging yet elegantly balanced selection of music, but also the performers’ impressive musical and communicative skills.

Gwyn Parry-Jones 

 

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