The Civilisation of Song on a Sunday Morning

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Ravel, Rodrigo, Roussel, Walton: Gail Pearson (soprano), Andrew Smith (piano). Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 4.3.2012. (GPu)

Britten: On this Island
Debussy: Beau Soir
Ravel: Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques
Rodrigo: Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios
Walton: Three Sitwell Songs

Soprano Gail Pearson, born in South Wales, once a student at Cardiff University before going on to the Royal Northern College of Music and now a vocal tutor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, was very much on home territory in this very pleasant pre-lunch song-recital excellently supported by pianist Andrew Smith. There was, though, nothing ‘merely’ Welsh about her repertoire.

She began with the five songs, with texts by W.H. Auden, which make up the cycle On this Island of 1937. The fanfare-like calls of ‘Let the florid music praise’ were sung with forcefulness and security, nicely subverted (as they surely should be) by the later waltz-rhythms. The fleet-footed opening to ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’ was well handled musically speaking but, perhaps inevitably, there was a price to pay as far as clarity of diction was concerned. (Mind you, the complexity of Auden’s texts is such that even if one heard every single word they would be rather too much to digest at a single hearing). Andrew Smith’s rhythmic alertness was gratifying in ‘Seascape’. ‘Nocturne’, one of Britten’s earliest evocations of dream-filled sleep, was sung and played with a pleasing sense of line and phrase, respectfully responsive to both text and piano part, not least in the late move from C minor to G sharp. The wit and vivacity of ‘As it is, plenty’ was there, well, plentifully, although it always seems a rather odd ending to the cycle.

Debussy’s early Beau Soir, a setting of words by Paul Bourguet, written when Debussy was in his very early twenties, moves from an opening evocation of the beauties of twilight (“Lorsque au soleil couchant les rivières sont roses / Et qu’un tiède frisson court sur les champs de blé”, “When the rivers are pink in the setting sun, / And a warm shudder runs across the wheat fields”) to the anticipation of death at its close (“Car nous nous en allons, comme s’en va cette onde: / Elle à la mer, nous au tombeau”, “For we are passing on,  as this stream passes on: / The stream to the sea, we to the grave”). Though Pearson and Smith captured much of what is evocative in the setting, and communicated the arch of the song’s shape, there were moments when the performance might have been a little more hushed. Much the greater part of the score is marked piano or pianissimo.

Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques is a deservedly popular collection and Pearson and Smith showed us why in performances which brought out many of the best qualities of these five songs. ‘Là-bas, vers église’ was particularly successful, sung with authority and understanding and with profundity and stillness. Though vivaciously done, the masculine boastfulness of ‘Quel galant m’est comparable’ proved a little more elusive. There was, though, much that was graceful in the ‘Chanson des cueilleuses de lintisques’ and a lovely sense of repose at its end. Gail Pearson’s vocal characterisation of ‘Tout gai’ was very persuasive – one could readily believe that “la vaisselle danse” (“the dish is dancing”)

For me the high point of the recital came with Rodrigo’s Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios. This set of four songs has an underlying Spanish flavour (not least in the guitar like rhythms and the melismatic vocal writing in the last song) throughout but they are also full of other kinds of musical echoes – such as the reminiscences of Bach in the second and (unless it’s my imagination) of Mozart in the third. Pearson and Smith certainly had a very sure grasp of the distinctive idiom Rodrigo produces from all this. ‘¿Con qué la lavaré?’ was lyrical and touching and ‘Vos me matásteis’ was particularly successful, sung with appealing clarity and packing a real emotional punch, convincing the listener of the lover’s melodramatic claims –  “Vos me matásteis, / niña en cabello, vos me habéis muerto” (“You killed me, girl,  with your hair you have killed me”). ‘¿De dónde venís, amore’ (‘From where do you come, love?’) was, vocally speaking, well acted, and the playful joy of the text was well articulated. The song which closes the sequence, ‘De los Alamos vengo, madre’, benefits from a lengthy and attractive piano introduction, eloquently played by Andrew Smith, and singer and pianist alike revelled in the accumulative repetitions of Rodrigo’s setting and Smith’s playing of the high, pianissimo conclusion brought the set to a perfect conclusion.

Roussel’s ‘Jazz dans la nuit’, which sets a poem by René Dommange,  is an odd and slightly puzzling piece. It is hard to work out quite what Roussel’s attitude (or indeed Dommange’s) is to the jazz which one draws on and the other writes about. Poem and song alike react to the presence of black jazz musicians in Paris at the beginning of the 1920s. There is not much understanding of this new music in Dommange’s text and he associates it with some fairly squalid imagery. Roussel gives the text an attractive piano introduction and treats it to some effective transitions of mood, but one suspects a degree of irony in his (limited) use of jazz idioms. The syncopation seems to speak of something best kept at arm’s length – to be treated with a degree of suspicion, even disdain, rather than recognised (as it was by some other composers) as a potentially liberating and enriching force. I’m not sure that Pearson and Smith really left me any wiser about the intended tone of the song, which remained ambiguous (perhaps that’s the intention?), but they certainly performed it with control both of the material and of their audience.

The same might be said of Walton’s Three Sitwell Songs which closed the formal part of the proceedings. In ‘Daphne’ the neo-classical allusions were nicely handled and Smith brought out the wit of the piano writing; in ‘Through gilded trellises’ the writing for piano comes close to stealing the show, the playfulness of the accompaniment a real joy; in ‘Old Sir Faulk’ singer and pianist alike found the perfect complement of vigour and lightness, and there was a pleasing relishing of rhythm and textual ‘nonsense’ which invited the audience into the performer’s pleasure very engagingly.

As an encore, Pearson and Smith gave us a very moving performance of Britten’s setting of Yeats’s ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’, a performance “full of tears”, in the poem’s closing phrase. It brought us back to Britten (but a very different Britten from the one with which the recital had begun) – sentimental rather than disillusioned, straightforward in the expression of emotion rather than ironic and complex as in the Auden settings.

The whole made for a very civilised Sunday morning; while this may not have been an overwhelming musical experience, it was a model of thoughtful intelligence and stimulated many a thought about words and music.

Glyn Pursglove