Back to the Nursery with Christianne Stotijn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Britten, Mussorgsky: Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Imogen Cooper (piano), Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 6.7.2013. (RJ)
Schubert: Der Winterabend; Im Abendrot; An Mein Herz.
Britten: Winter Words (version première) [At Day-close in November; Midnight on the Great Western; Wagtail and Baby; The Little Old Table; The Choirmaster’s Burial; Proud Songsters; At the Railway Station, Upway; Before Life and After]
Schubert: Impromptu No 1 in F minor D935
Britten: A Charm of Lullabies [A Cradle Song; The Highland Balou; Sepesztia’s Lullaby; A Charm; The Nurse’s Song]
Mussorgsky: The Nursery [With Nanny; In the Corner; The Beetle; With the Doll; At Bedtime]

Stotijn and Cooper-  Photo credit Phil Stapleton
Stotijn and Cooper-
Photo credit Phil Stapleton

When is a première not a première? I found myself asking this question as I listened to Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Winter Words dating from 1953, the year of his opera Gloriana. A decade later Dame Janet Baker was invited to sing it on the radio, but finding the register too high for her mezzo-soprano voice she asked permission to transpose it down a semitone. Britten, who was especially sensitive to the keys in which his music was written, was unhappy with her suggestion and came up with alternatives. Later, Dame Janet revealed that she had not used all of Britten’s transpositions in her broadcast, and the novelty of this performance lay in the fact that it was the first to feature all the transpositions the composer had recommended.

This information unsettled me a little for it smacked of compromise with none of the settings performed exactly as Britten had conceived them. Though Ms Stotijn’s performance was very creditable I couldn’t help wondering if his settings of poems by Thomas Hardy would not have been more effective if sung by a soprano or a tenor.

There were plenty of good points, however, such as the atmospheric Midnight on the Great Western in which the journeying boy travels into the unknown to the rhythmic accompaniment of the train’s motion, vividly evoked by Imogen Cooper. Stotijn skilfully brought out the whimsicality of Wagtail and Baby in which the bird shrugs off the approach of animal predators but scarpers at the presence of “a perfect gentleman”. One could sense the chill of Winter in The Choirmaster’s Funeral where the vicar decides on a short service with no music in view of the inclement weather conditions, and later sees musical ghosts performing around the deceased’s final resting-place. She also brought out the pathos and irony in the following song in which a compassionate boy violinist entertains a convict in police custody as they wait for a train.

The other Britten work was A Charm of Lullabies, of which only the first and last fit into the traditional idea of a lullaby. The Dutch mezzo-soprano injected plenty of local colour into The Highland Balou and must have confounded any Scots in the audience with the authenticity of her accent. Thomas Randolph’s A Charm was a thoroughly nasty piece, full of threats as to what will happen if a child doesn’t go to sleep. I don’t think Christianne Stotijn would gain any Brownie points by inflicting this song on her charges if ever called on to baby-sit!

This was an intelligently programmed recital: the first part had Winter as its theme, the second childhood. It had opened with Schubert’s Winterabend in which the evening stillness offers consolation after the rigours of daily life and emotional loss. The hymn-like Im Abendrot had an almost ecstatic quality while the passionate An Mein Herz was brought to life by Imogen Cooper’s heart-throbbing accompaniment. I was delighted that Miss Cooper had a spot to herself in which she performed a Schubert Impromptu with her usual insight and flair.

One doesn’t normally associate Mussorgsky with humour or light-heartedness so The Nursery, settings of the composer’s own verse, came as something as a surprise. One felt they were in a similar vein to A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin poems complete with a nanny, toys and a rocking horse. Christianne Stotijn shed a few years from her life to return to her childhood and acted out the verses – which see life through a young child’s perspective – with considerable relish – with Imogen Cooper as a ready accomplice.

The child complains about Nanny’s frightening stories about wolves and wants something funny instead, and lies like mad when Nanny finds her knitting in a mess. When Sailor the Cat creeps up on the caged canary the child reaches out to give him a thwack and injures her finger on the cage. In Bedtime Prayer she asks God’s blessing on a long list of aunts, uncles and cousins almost forgetting herself in the process; and when she mounts a hobby horse her imagination runs riot. Although the text was in Russian, the vivacious Christianne Stotijn communicated the joys and tribulations of childhood so vividly that the language barrier completely disappeared.

Roger Jones