United Kingdom Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Duparc: Kitty Whately (mezzo), Thomas Allen (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 11.8.2012 (SRT)
Kathleen Ferrier was a figure of almost incalculable significance in the early years of the Edinburgh International Festival. She sang at every one of the first six festivals (1947-1952), most famously when she sang Das Lied von der Erde for Bruno Walter at the very first one in 1947. Her dark, rich contralto was one of the most distinctive and important voices to come out of these islands, and it is fitting that, in the centenary year of her birth, the Edinburgh International Festival remembers her legacy through the award that was set up in her memory. This Kathleen Ferrier Centenary Celebration Concert united two of the award’s winners (a third, South African baritone Njabulo Madlala, had to withdraw due to illness) in a concert of repertoire, much of which was linked to Ferrier herself.
Thomas Allen has long been an audience favourite, and this concert showed him off at his best. The years have hardly touched his voice: it still rings rich and burnished, except occasionally toward the bottom of his register where he seemed a little challenged, particularly in Brahms’ Sapphische Ode. However, he achieved the remarkable feat of elevating Ravel’s (rather daft) songs of Don Quixote to the level of something rather compelling, and his traversal of traditional songs from his native North-East were shot through with pathos (The Water o’Tyne) and good humour (Show me the way to Wallington). It’s easy to see why Kitty Whately has become one of the more recent winners (she secured it in 2011). Her rich mezzo is bright and characterful, full of colour and panache, and her rendition of the traditional numbers was every bit as good as Allen’s. What a lovely touch for her to begin with a Ferrier favourite, Ma Bonnie Lad. However, she was just as compelling in the French chansons. Her Debussy was particularly striking, the Chansons de Bilitis pulsating with erotic suggestion, and she also showed herself a compelling dramatist through Duparc’s Au pays où se fait la guerre, depicting the lonely maiden in the tower with pathos and sympathy before her excitable climax as the (false) rumour of her lover’s return appears. Both soloists finished with a rousing rendition of The Mermaid, sending up Rule Britannia with the story of a sailor who falls overboard and ends up marrying a mermaid. It is gratifying to think that, 59 years after her death, Ferrier’s legacy still gives a leg-up to great singers such as these. She would be pleased to be able to see it.C Radio 3 at 11:00am on Tuesday 14 August.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk