Marvellous Singing from Jacques Imbrailo in Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Vaughan Williams, Stephen Hough, Liszt, Butterworth: Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Alisdair Hogarth (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 30. 11.2013 (RB)

Vaughan Williams:  Songs of Travel
Stephen Hough:Herbstlieder
Liszt:Three Petrarch Sonnets
Butterworth:Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad

South African baritone, Jacques Imbrailo, has just returned from a stupendous production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne (review).  He clearly has a close affinity with English vocal music which dominated this recital.  The theme of the concert was physical and spiritual journeys and Imbrailo was joined by the director of the Prince Consort, Alisdair Hogarth.

Vaughan Williams started to work on his Songs of Travel in 1901 when he wrote Whither must I Wander which was a setting of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.  He wanted to emulate the Austro-German song-cycle tradition and set eight other Stevenson poems to music to create the set.  The Vagabond opens the set and Hogarth’s piano gave us the insistent trudge of the wanderer’s footsteps at the start of our journey.  Imbrailo produced very supple, flowing lines and the diction was excellent throughout, even in the very quiet passage at the end.  He has a gorgeous, silky smooth voice which was on full display and the vocal lines were very even.  Hogarth produced brightly coloured rippling arpeggios for Let Beauty Awake while Imbrailo gave the vocal line a wonderful uplifting quality and sense of buoyancy.  The Roadside Fire had a natural flow while Youth and Love had some mercurial dramatic contrasts: and I particularly liked the way the impassioned way in which Imbrailo handled the second verse while remaining alive to the meaning of the words.  In Dreams was tender and meditative with Imbrailo soaring through the vocal phrases at the climaxes.  Hogarth gave us some rapt, harp-like sonorities in the broken chords opening The Infinite Shining Heavens while Imbrailo showed us his gift for storytelling in Whither must I wander which had a confiding sense of reassurance.  The final song, I have trod the upward and downward slope opened bleakly while the final peroration into the major key was magical.

Pianist and composer Stephen Hough wrote Herbstlieder for Imbrailo and the set is dedicated to him.  Hough uses settings by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke for this cycle and the focus of the set is on change and decay as represented by the season of autumn.  The spirit of Alban Berg seems to permeate this music and, as one might expect from Hough, the piano part is rather intricate.  The vocal lines are very dramatic, almost operatic in places, and Imbrailo made the most of this to show us his full vocal range.  Imbrailo’s intonation was very good – not always easy in this music – while I liked some of the effects from Hogarth e.g. the surreal passagework in Tränenkrüglein and the impressionistic writing in Herbst.  I would like to hear the set again before coming to a view on how good the music is but it was intriguing and not quite what I would have expected from Hough.

The second half of the recital opened with Liszt’s three Petrarch sonnets.  The great Italian poet went about writing his sonnets after seeing a woman named Laura on Good Friday in 1327.  Liszt was travelling in Italy with his mistress, Marie D’Agoult, when he set three of the poems to music and versions for piano solo form part of the Italian volume of his Anneés de pèlerinage.  Liszt originally wrote the lieder versions for tenor voice but the set was transposed by Justus Zeyen for baritone.  In Pace non trovo (I find no peace) Hogarth captured the urgency of the opening while he allowed the Italian cantilena to float beautifully.  Imbrailo gave us some voluptuous and richly coloured singing his voice soaring through phrases while maintaining beauty of tone and evenness of line.  Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day) sounds as if it belongs in a Verdi opera.   Imbrailo brought a richly expressive Italianate quality to the music while the reference to calling Laura’s name had an ecstatic quality.  I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) was very lyrical and emotional with some beautifully refined phrasing:  I loved Hogarth’s capturing of the reverie in the piano part.

The concert concluded with Butterworth’s settings of A E Housman.  Loveliest of Trees had a beguiling simplicity and openness while Imbrailo and Hogarth brought out the folk and storytelling elements of When I was one-and-twenty.   Imbrailo demonstrated a wonderful feeling for the poetry of Look not in my eyes while he brought out the forced heartiness of Think no more, lads while underlining the tragic shadow in the background. The last two songs in the set are absolutely magical:  the poems of Wilfred Owen, with their homoeroticism and images of beautiful young men being brutalised and destroyed by mechanised warfare are not too far away.  The lads in their hundreds with its rustic melody had a wistful, nostalgic feel with Imbrailo shaping the melody in a highly sensitive way.  Is my team ploughing represents a dialogue between a dead youth and his friend who married the dead man’s sweetheart.  The drama was brilliantly realised by Imbrailo while the song became increasingly charged as we came to know more about the nature of the relationship between the two men.

There were two encores:  an Afrikaans folk song dating back to the Boer War which I very much enjoyed (please record it!) and Britten’s arrangement of O Waly, Waly.

Robert Beattie

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