Sir Willard Heads Gala Evening of Song

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 3 – Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Berlioz, Duparc, Quilter, Spirituals: Sylvia Kevorkian (soprano), Sir Willard White (bass-baritone), Eugene Asti (piano): St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 15.10.2013 (CR)

Schubert: Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531
Auflösung, D807
Das Fischermädchen (from Schwanengesang), D957 No 10
Du bist die Ruh, D776
Der Atlas (from Schwanengesang), D957 No 8
Mendelssohn: Volkslied, Op 63 No 5
Schumann: So wahr die Sonne scheinet, Op 37, No 12
Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge, Op 121
Liszt: Oh, quand je dors!
Duparc: Chanson triste
Hector Berlioz: Three songs from Les Nuits d’été:
Le spectre de la rose
Lîle inconnue
Quilter: Three Shakespeare Songs, Op 6

In one of the most eagerly anticipated events in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, Sir Willard White sang alongside his partner Sylvia Kevorkian. A touching rapport was palpable between them in the two duets, Mendelssohn’s Volkslied and Schumann’s So wahr die Sonne scheinet, which surely went beyond the musical, just as Schumann attested to his love for Clara in the ideal balance achieved between the widely spaced voices in the latter piece. In Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (perhaps best known from its use in his String Quartet of the same name) although the voices are not heard together, there was clear understanding between the singers in realising the song to dramatic effect. Kevorkian began with audible anxiety in the part of the Maiden, flustered at the apparition of Death. In the latter guise, White’s response was intoned as though disembodied or from a distance, with a haunting depth (perhaps redolent of Mozart’s Commendatore for instance) which also conveyed tender reassurance.

Death was a prominent theme in this programme, as the first half ended with White’s performance of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, which deal with precisely that phenomenon through the words of the Lutheran Bible – one of the composer’s last works, revisiting the same matters first explored in the German Requiem. Incidentally, it is again interesting that these Songs should begin, at least, in the same D minor tonality as Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen and the music associated with the Commendatore and Don Giovanni’s punishment in Mozart’s opera. White imbued his singing of the cycle with a solid, earthly woe, though in the first song, Denn es gehet dem Menschen, he returned to the shadowy atmosphere he had conjured up in the Schubert. Overall he maintained a sense of seriousness and gravitas, even in the more optimistic final song, which ensured that the cycle was not compromised in effect by sensationalism or sentimentality. Specific shadings and nuances arose intelligently from the words, such as the uncompromising verdict that “all is vanity” in the first song, and his tender singing in the second part of the third song, where the music moves to the major.

Although death featured again in Quilter’s Three Shakespeare Songs with Come away, come away, death, White brought a tone of English melancholy, and of nostalgia too in Blow, blow, thou winter wind. Intonation was a little insecure in the former song, as the tones of the swinging modal melody were tending to become semitones. White seemed most relaxed and spontaneous, musically, in his performance of the two Spirituals, in arrangements with piano accompaniment by Carl Davis. Consequently these emerged with an emotional power to equal that of any song by Schubert or Brahms, aided in the case of Deep River by a liberal use of rubato such that the vocal melody seemed almost free and unmeasured, taking on a musical life of its own, which the more regularly observed rhythms of Eugene Asti’s accompaniment could not undermine. The parallel with Paul Robeson’s singing of this spiritual was striking. Throughout the recital, although White’s voice showed an occasional rough or dry edge, it was still unmistakeably his – the restraint and control of its sonorous power may perhaps be likened to a tamed lion.

Kevorkian’s singing was not as successful. Her training and experience in French repertoire seem to have brought a nasal quality to her voice which emphasises the open vowel sounds of words. With a less secure grip on the consonants it was as though she had to force the projection of sound rather than issue it naturally. In Schubert’s songs Auflösung and Du bist die Ruh it would have been difficult to tell that the texts were German if one did not know, and the problems with pronunciation detracted from what should have been an effect of unearthly simplicity in the latter song. She also appeared somewhat bound to the score, so much so that she seemed surprised that the second ascent to a high A flat in the last verse of Du bist die Ruh jumps up a fourth at one point rather than ascending completely by steps, as the first scale does. And little was made either by her or Asti of the silence that follows the two high A flats, a missed opportunity given the resonant church acoustic. Kevorkian was clearly more comfortable in her renditions of the songs set to French words, which allowed her to be more lyrical and radiant, particularly in the upper range of her voice. Lower down there was some lack of clarity, even a smoky vagueness that perhaps called to mind a jazz singer such as Nina Simone.

Asti’s accompaniments were variable. Often he set an appropriate mood for a song, but at other times his playing seemed a little matter of fact, notably at the beginning of Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge which missed a due note of solemnity, and the rhythms of Schubert’s Das Fischermädchen which were more pounding than lilting. The rumblings in the bass register for Das Atlas skilfully matched White’s vocal timbre however, and the sparkling prelude to Liszt’s Oh! Quand je dors established a suitably somnolent atmosphere.

For an encore White and Kevorkian reprised Der Tod und das Mädchen but in a neat and telling reversal where they swapped roles, which worked well in the context of the successful musical partnership they established. Despite my reservations, their performances and arresting stage presence certainly demonstrated that the subtle marriage of poetry and music in these discrete, intimate miniatures can carry as much emotional weight as a Wagner opera or Bruckner symphony.

Curtis Rogers