Emma Kirkby Reveals the Poetry of Song in a Fine Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Schubert: Emma Kirkby (soprano), Howard Williams (fortepiano), Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 19.01.14.(GP)

Haydn: Songs
Allegro Innocente (from Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:40)
Schubert: Songs
Scherzo in B flat  (D.593 No.1)


My years as a student of English in Oxford overlapped with Emma Kirkby’s time as an undergraduate studying Classics, so I have been listening to her sing for a great many years. In her absolute prime her voice had a distinctive, startling beauty, so much so that its sheer beauty often, for me at least, distracted my attention from what she was singing. Now that, inevitably, her voice is not quite what it was, and the work involved is more apparent when it all sounded (it was doubtless an illusion) so effortlessly easy, it is actually easier to appreciate the many other qualities of her singing, especially the high intelligence with which she ‘reads’ the words of what she is singing, how thoroughly she characterises the implied personality of the ‘voice’ behind the poet’s words and how perfect and often, revelatory, is the way she marries her textual understanding to the musical considerations.

Such virtues were everywhere apparent in her well-planned recital of songs by Haydn and Schubert, a musical territory Kirkby has occupied only relatively late in her now lengthy career – a recital in which she was very ably supported by Howard Williams at the fortepiano (the instrument being a modern copy of an instrument by Conrad Graf of 1820).

Haydn’s songs are, I think, still somewhat underrated. The two sets of lieder published in 1781 and 1784 are not, admittedly, very exciting on the whole and most of them would be hopelessly overshadowed if made to share a programme with Schubert. But, with characteristically shrewd judgement, Emma Kirby chose to sing the two which, with their amusing texts were best fitted to stimulate an inventive response from Haydn, one of the great musical ‘humourists’ after all. These two songs were ‘Lob der Faulheit’ (’In Praise of Laziness’) and ‘’ (Die zu späte Ankunft der Mutter (‘The Mother’s Arrival too Late’). The first, in which a devotee of laziness seeks to praise its virtues (“Höchstes Gut, wer dich nur hat, / Dessen ungestörtes Leben. . .”) but finds his efforts, self-referentially, as it were, overcome by laziness,  was sung in the original German (by no less a poet than Lessing), the second in a jaunty English translation by Derek McCulloch, rather than the original German by Christian Felix Weisse. In both performances Kirkby’s rapid vocal delineation of the protagonist, the lyrical ‘I’, of each song brought these witty texts vividly to life and did what the good performance of songs does – created a sense of a life behind and beyond the moment delineated by this specific song. The chromaticisms of the piano accompaniment in ‘Lob der faulheit’ were a complementary delight and Kirkby’s collapse into near-sleep at ‘besingen’ theatrically (but not excessively so) embodied the collapse of the would-be worshipper’s creative efforts.

The rest of Emma Kirkby’s Haydn selection was taken from his English songs, beginning with the magnificent setting of lines from Twelfth Night, ‘She never Told Her Love’ (Hob. XXVIa: 34). This is one of the finest of Haydn’s canzonettas and will bear comparison, especially when sung with as much understanding as it was on this occasion, with all but the greatest things in the solo singer’s repertoire. I have always found it puzzling that Arthur Jacobs should have written that this is a work in which “the setting . . . is not really suited to the words”. I am much more inclined to agree with Richard Wigmore’s views, when he writes that Haydn sets ‘Viola’s words as a free arioso, full of bold, rhetorical contrasts and unusually expressive dynamic and expression markings. Two especially inspired touches are the overlapping of the vocal entry with the close of the piano introduction and the voice’s twice-repeated lingering cadence near the close, the first time culminating in a stabbing discord – a perfect musical embodiment of ‘Smiling at Grief’”. Kirkby and Williams opened the first half of their programme with this piece (just as they were to open the second half with another ‘Shakespearean’ text ‘An Sylvia’) and they immediately established the right sense of scale and expressiveness, respecting both the marmoreal imagery in Viola’s words “She sat, like Patience on a monument” and the disturbing force of phrases such as “let concealment, like a worm in the bud,/ Feed on her damask cheek”. The reconciliation of these two contrary impulses and what they say about the repression of emotion, captured the essence of the song perfectly, in a memorable performance. Altogether slighter, because simpler in emotion and with a text that is little more than a patchwork of conventional gothicisms, is ‘The Wanderer’, with a text by Haydn’s friend Anne Hunter. Even Kirkby and Williams couldn’t persuade one that this had much substance to it. ‘The Spirit’s Song’, also with a text by Hunter:

HARK what I tell to thee,
Nor sorrow o’er the tomb,
My spirit wanders free,
And waits till thine shall come.

All pensive and alone,
I see thee sit and weep,
Thy head upon the stone,
Where my cold ashes sleep.

I watch thy speaking eyes,
And mark each precious tear,
I catch thy parting sighs,
Ere they are lost in air.

Hark what I tell to thee, &c. &c …

is a better piece, with a degree of genuine emotional progression throughout and an implicit intimacy that gets beyond the gothic trappings, with some resonantly gloomy pauses in the writing for the piano and an instrumental interlude of  austere darkness which complements (and enhances) the words beautifully. ‘A Pastoral Song’ (with yet another text by Hunter) benefits from some airily transparent writing for the keyboard and, on this occasion, here from the vocal inventiveness of Kirkby’s plausible characterisation of the supposed young female singer. Two more of his settings of words by Hunter rounded out the Haydn part of Emma Kirkby’s contribution to this recital programme: ‘Despair’ and ‘Fidelity’. Both have a considerable weight, created more by Haydn’s music than the poet’s words, ‘Despair’ being grave and slow, ‘Fidelity’ a passionate piece of Sturm und Drang which brought out some fine playing by Williams, the keyboard writing having a force almost independent of the words, a musical embodiment of “the rushing winds”, the “bitter storm of fortune” and the “tempests” of which Mrs. Hunter’s text speaks, an instrumental storm against which the voice stands firm and faithful. A striking performance of this fine song concluded the first half of the programme, which had also included one purely instrumental item, the ‘Allegro Innocente’ which opens  the Keyboard Sonata in G (Hob. XVI:40). The innocence here is not quite all that it might first appear to be. There is considerable sophistication here too and if this is innocence it is that of a very ‘knowing’ mind playing at innocence, more than a few unexpected accents and some quite strained harmonies soon disrupt and problematise the naïve charm of the pastoral opening. The fortepiano, at least as played by Williams, did a degree of justice to this interesting movement, giving it a persuasiveness I have not heard in modern instrument performances of it.

I regard Emma Kirkby as being as fine an interpreter of Haydn’s songs as we currently have. I wouldn’t make quite such a claim for her Schubert, much as I respect and enjoy it. The relative smallness of her voice gives her interpretations a genuine ‘chamber’ quality absent from many contemporary performances of Schubert, some of them almost operatic in scale and musical idiom. And, of course, her Schubert is illuminated by her sensitive and thoughtful responsiveness to poetry, not a quality I find in by any means all modern singers of Schubert.

The Schubert half of this programme opened with ‘An Sylvia’ (D.891), Eduard van Bauernfeld’s rather clumsy version of Shakespeare’s song from Act IV Scene ii of Two Gentlemen of Verona. For all the weakness of Bauernfeld’s translation, Schubert’s song is a fine piece of work, the piano writing sublimely rustic, the vocal line exhilarating and fully expressive of a passionately idealising love. We got a performance from Kirkby and Williams that was perhaps a little deficient in sheer intensity, but graceful and assured. Then followed a song with a far better text, from a far superior poet, one of Goethe’s Mignon songs ‘So lasst mich scheinen’ (D.727). In this delicate setting Kirkby (and Williams) captured very beautifully and convincingly the essential childishness of Goethe’s character and the powerful pathos of the dying girl’s awareness that death is close, as well as her aspiration to an angelic afterlife. This was a more moving interpretation than many I have heard, gentle without being weak, psychologically and emotionally convincing. ‘Der Jüngling an der Quelle’ (D.300), with its bubbling semiquavers worked particularly well on this fortepiano and with this voice, the scale of the performance avoiding all over-inflation of music or text in an intimacy of manner and medium that perfectly suited words and music alike. The water imagery of  ‘Meerestille’ (D.216, words, again, by Goethe),   as so often, stimulates Schubert to some of his finest writing and the fluency of Kirkby’s singing as well as the lightness and clarity of the fortepiano complemented that writing delightfully. The pictorial quality of much in the piano part and the delicacy and textual insight of Kirkby, as well as her typical clarity of diction brought something like the best out of this lovely song, poised and calm. There was a radiant stillness to the opening of ‘Im Abendrot’, complemented  by a weightier quality in the second stanza, even if the text (by Karl Gottlieb Lappe)  largely sustains the imagery of light from its opening lines. The classical songs of ‘Iphigenie’ (D. 573) and ‘Ganymed’ (D.544) have in the case of the implicitly tragic ‘Iphigenie’ and the allegory of sensual and spiritual transformation in ‘Ganymed’, the power of myth which Kirkby and Williams were perhaps less able to articulate altogether successfully.  Their reading of ‘Iphigenie’ carried a good deal of emotional truth and conviction, but the intimate scale of their interpretation suggested a merely ‘personal’ story and situation rather than that entire tragic cycle of which Iphigenie’s situation is but a part (albeit an important part). ‘Ganymed’, though performed with a lovely sense of Schubert’s shifting tonalities and the resonant ambiguities of Goethe’s text, was perhaps a little underpowered, beautiful rather than sublime. Yet, to be fair, I have to confess that I have yet to hear a performance of this song that I have found entirely satisfactory.

Howard Williams balanced his Haydn piece for solo piano in the first half of the programme with Schubert’s Scherzo in B flat (D.593 No.1), a piece full of playful mischief, delightful in its sense of fun and dancing rhythms, though not without Schubertian grace amongst its playful disruptions of the expected. It is well suited, of course, to a ‘Graf’ fortepiano, Schubert’s ‘own’ instrument and its great good humour, well communicated by Williams, aptly leavened the passion of some of the surrounding songs.

We were treated to a delightful surprise in the encore that Kirkby and Williams gave us – a setting of lines from Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard by Frederick Pinto (1785-1806) beginning at “Soon as thy letters trembling I unclose” and ending at “To read and weep is all they now can do” (i.e. from line 29 to line 48). This is a beautiful and perceptive setting which responds to all the contained passion in Pope’s lines, taken from a poem of which the Romantic poet Lord Byron (a man who knew a good deal about passion!) wisely observed “If you search for passion, where is it to be found stronger than in the Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard”. (Kirkby has recorded this song, accompanied by Timothy Roberts, on Hyperion CDA66497). Pinto’s manner suggests that he was familiar with Haydn’s English canzonettas and this suggests that he was well able to learn from Haydn. His variations of tempo and repetition-with-variety are well judged and responsive to Pope’s verse with a genuine subtlety. For a young Englishman (who died at the age of twenty) this is an extraordinary work, and would be an impressive work from the pen of any composer of his period. Pinto could scarcely have had more persuasive advocates than Kirkby and Williams and their performance of this piece rounded off a rewarding Sunday morning recital – no Hancock-like boring Sunday afternoon after this! (Listen to Tony Hancock’s ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home‘ if you don’t know what I mean!).

Glyn Pursglove