United Kingdom Love Songs from The Prince Consort: Cheltenham Music Festival. Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham. 10.7.2012 (JQ)
Brahms: Liebeslieder, Op. 52 (1869)
Stephen Hough: Other Love Songs (2009)
Schumann: Spanische Liebeslieder, Op. 138 (1849)
Brahms: Neue Liebeslieder, Op. 65 (1875)
The Prince Consort
Katherine Broderick (soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Jacques Imbrailo (baritone)
Philip Fowke (piano)
Alisdair Hogarth (artistic director/piano)
Up to now I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a concert by The Prince Consort though I admired very much a CD of songs by Ned Rorem that they issued a little while ago (review). They have also recorded the music by Brahms and Stephen Hough that was on the programme for this recital (review) but I missed that disc. So there was plenty of incentive to attend this Cheltenham Festival concert.
There was some adept planning behind the programme. That fine pianist, Stephen Hough, who is now becoming noticed also as a composer, wrote Other Love Songs at the request of Alisdair Hogarth, specifically as a companion piece to the two sets of Liebeslieder. The three sets of songs are just the right length for a CD but insufficient for a full concert so the addition of the songs by Schumann, Brahms’s friend and mentor, was a felicitous choice.
I’d not heard the Hough songs before and on a first hearing I was impressed. Hough deliberately set out firstly to avoid waltzes and, secondly, poems that depict conventional heterosexual love. To symbolise the differentiation with Brahms’s songs he cast his piano accompaniment for three rather than four hands; in this performance Philip Fowke played the one-handed part. As you might expect, given that the composer is a virtuoso pianist, the piano part is consistently interesting and often witty. The songs are immediately attractive and benefit from a good melodic impulse. I also admired Hough’s evident sensitivity to his chosen texts. In his cycle each singer gets excellent solo opportunities and there are a couple of duets but only rarely in the eight settings is the full quartet deployed. I particularly admired Jacques Imbrailo’s rendition of ‘Because I Liked You Better’. His singing was deeply expressive and he brought marvellous tone, clarity of diction and, where required, vocal amplitude to his performance. Andrew Staples gave a suitably ardent account of his solo. ‘The City’s Love’ and Jennifer Johnston not only sang ‘Madam and her Madam’ well but she also showed a gift for humour. The soprano solo is ‘Kashmiri Song’, a setting of those old lines ‘Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar’. Here Katherine Broderick sang with pleasingly round tone in the lower register of her voice but when she was required to sing loudly at the top end of her register there was a tendency to overdo the power, putting on too much pressure and as a result her tone tended to harden. These songs impressed me and I’m keen to hear them again; in fact, I’ve ordered the CD!
The Schumann settings were new to me also and I enjoyed them. Earlier we’d heard the first set of Liebeslieder in which, with rare exceptions, Brahms wrote almost exclusively for vocal quartet. Schumann, by contrast, divides his eight songs among the singers, giving each a solo – the tenor has two short solos, shorter than those for his colleagues – in addition to which there are a couple of duets and one final quartet. For reasons we’ll come to in a moment it was something of a relief to experience the greater contrast afforded by Schumann. All four singers did very well in their solo items. Once again I felt that Jacques Imbrailo’s solo was the highlight. He sang the fourth song, ‘Romanze’, giving a thoroughly engaging performance. His voice sounded beautifully smooth and was evenly produced throughout its compass. I liked Andrew Staples’ sardonic delivery of ‘Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen’ and to judge by the ripple of chuckles among the audience at the end I wasn’t alone. After the piano Prelude Katherine Broderick opened the collection with ‘Tief im Herzen trag’ ich Pein’. She sang expressively, putting over the quiet sadness of the setting effectively. As with her solo in the Hough, much of the music lay in the lower part of her voice, much to her advantage.
The Brahms Liebeslieder brought much to enjoy but also some disappointments. The first set consists almost entirely of quartets and almost from the start I felt there were balance problems. My seat was about five rows back from the front and the quartet of singers stood, from left to right, as SATB. This meant that Jacques Imbrailo was furthest away from me and Miss Broderick was nearest. She has a powerful voice and I felt that on many occasions, especially when the music was high-lying, she was simply too loud and that her tone had a hard edge. By contrast I found it very difficult to hear Mr Imbrailo and I wondered at first if he was holding back but his singing elsewhere in the programme gave the lie to that. The mezzo and tenor also projected quite strongly at times; whether this was their natural disposition or whether they were responding to Miss Broderick I don’t know. Miss Broderick hasn’t been the regular soprano in The Prince Consort in the past, so far as I know. Perhaps she has replaced Anna Leese, either temporarily or permanently; if so perhaps the balance issues were the result of lack of familiarity all round though I must say that in other respects the singers sang as a genuine quartet, evidently interacting with each other, rather than as four singers who’d come together just to sing Brahms’s quartets. It’s possible also that they misjudged the acoustic of the hall. Whatever the reason, what was in other respects a clearly committed performance, full of enthusiasm for the music, was a bit overpowering at times.
The performance of Neue Liebeslieder fared rather better in this respect, possibly because Brahms wrote fewer of these settings for all four singers to deliver together. I liked Katherine Broderick’s very expressive solo song, ‘An jeder Hand die Finger’ and also Jacques Imbrailo’s way with ‘Ihr schwarzen Augen’. ‘ Vom Gebirge, Well auf Well’, a quartet, seemed a touch hard driven but immediately after that we heard another quartet., ‘Weiche Gräser im Revier’, which contained much more by way of relaxed music and here the balance was much more satisfactory.
Despite the reservations over elements in the Brahms performances this was a highly enjoyable recital and the enjoyment was enhanced throughout by the fine and supportive pianism of Philip Fowke and Alisdair Hogarth. What a shame that the audience for this concert was disappointingly thin.