United Kingdom The Soldier from Severn to Somme. Christopher Maltman (baritone), Julius Drake (piano), St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 18.5.2014 (JQ)
The Soldier from Severn to Somme
Butterworth – Loveliest of Trees from Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911)
Gurney – Black Stichel (1920)
Somervell – On the Idle Hill of Summer from A Shropshire Lad (1904)
Butterworth – Look Not Into My Eyes (1911)
Mahler – Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (1898)
Fauré – Les Berceaux Op 23/1 (1883)
Ives – He is There (1917)
Somervell – White in the Moon (1904)
Gurney – Severn Meadows (1917)
Mahler – Revelge (1899)
Mussorgsky – Commander in Chief (1877) from Songs and Dances of Death
Gurney – In Flanders (1917)
Somervell – Think no More Lad (1904)
Schumann – Die beiden Grenadiere Op 49/1 (1840)
Wolf – Die Tambour from Möricke-Lieder (1888)
Schumann – Der Soldat from Fünf Lieder, Op 40 (1840)
Finzi – Channel Firing (1940) from Before and after Summer, Op 16
Somervell – Into my Heart an air that kills (1904)
Butterworth – When I was one and twenty (1911)
The lads in their hundreds (1911)
Is my team Ploughing? (1911)
Poulenc – Lune d’Avril fromLa Courte Paille (1960)
This was the second of two concerts commemorating the dead of the 1914-18 war at this year’s Chipping Campden Festival. There was the marvellous concert by The Tallis Scholars a few evenings ago (review) and now this exceptional recital by Christopher Maltman and Julius Drake. The two concerts had two key things in common: perceptive programme planning and top-class musical performances.
Introducing the programme, Maltman told us that it was a programme that meant a lot to him – something which I found was readily apparent as he performed it. Its origins lay in a competition programme that he devised over 20 years ago, mainly comprised of Gurney songs, and over the years he has refined and expanded it. In particular he’s added a ‘backbone’ of Housman settings – he offered the interesting information that during World War I Housman’s volume of poetry, A Shropshire Lad was, after the Bible, the book most carried by British troops at the front. This latest, full-evening expansion includes music by composers from all the main protagonist nations from the Great War: Britain, France, the Austro-German Empire and the USA: Canada, too, was represented as the words for the Ives song were by a Canadian. The resulting programme looked wonderful on paper: in performance it turned out to be one of the most thoughtful and brilliantly devised recitals I have ever experienced.
The programme fell into four sections, as shown in the heading to this review, and, as Maltman said, this represented the journey of a soldier, A. N. Other. In the first section the soldier reflects on and bids farewell to the homeland he must leave in order to fight. Then we observed the soldier’s journey to the front and what awaited him there. The final section formed a moving, reflective epilogue. I was somewhat disappointed that the festival programme book, which documents most of the concerts excellently, contained no notes whatsoever about this programme, though the texts and translations were supplied. It would surely have helped the audience if they’d been given a bit of information about the songs they were to hear but not even the dates of composition were supplied.
Five of George Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad were dispersed through the programme. One song from Butterworth’s cycle was omitted: this was Think no More Lad but we heard that poem instead in the setting by Sir Arthur Somervell. This and three other Somervell settings were taken from his 1904 cycle, A Shropshire Lad, which is, I believe, the earliest of all Housman cycles.
There was an early masterstroke. After Butterworth’s Loveliest of Trees Maltman moved without a pause into Gurney’s Black Stichel, thereby giving us a strong contrast between Butterworth’s presentation of the eager, innocent youth at home, and Gurney’s much more active, impetuous youth. I thought this segue worked very well indeed. The Somervell setting that followed was more comfortable and decorous than either of the two previous songs. It was attractive and very well performed but all the Somervell songs rather paled by comparison with the pieces with which they were surrounded in this programme. There was nothing pale about the Mahler song that concluded this group. Maltman gave an outstanding and atmospheric account of Revelge, one of Mahler’s Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In depicting the departing young soldier taking leave of his sweetheart Maltman painted a vivid picture and I admired especially his wonderful use of the high register of his voice, singing softly and sweetly in the passages where he represented the young girl.
Fauré’s inspired Les Berceaux is really about mariners putting out to sea, leaving their wives and families behind but in this context it served very well to represent the troop ships heading off to France. Maltman’s seamless legato line was memorable. The Ives setting that followed was a typically quirky, riotous affair written, I believe, within weeks of the USA entering the war in 1917. As so often with Ives, popular American melodies were scattered liberally throughout the piece. Maltman gave a bravura performance, as did Julius Drake who had to contend with a wild piano part. Whether this song shows Ives being patriotic or cynical is an open question. Somervell’s White in the Moon brought us back to earth, providing a necessary contrast with the rambunctious Ives: it’s a poetic setting, which Maltman and Drake did very well indeed. But a good song was followed by a truly great song. Gurney’s Severn Meadows is surely one of the most profoundly moving artistic expressions to come out of World War I. It’s an almost unique example of Gurney, the composer setting words by Gurney, the poet. Every time I hear it I marvel that such a beautiful piece of writing could have been created right in the midst of the horrors and squalor of trench warfare yet such is the case: the song is inscribed ‘Caulaincourt March 1917’. Maltman’s performance was supremely sensitive and he conveyed the aching melancholy of the song quite beautifully. In another fine contrast the pensive Gurney setting was followed by a gritty Mahler song, another of his Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The story of the doomed drummer boy and his comrades was related in a biting, dramatic way. In the most vivid performance of the evening so far Maltman gave an astonishingly powerful rendition of the song while Julius Drake realised the huge, quasi-orchestral piano part superbly.
The third section of the programme began with more drama. Mussorgsky’s Commander in Chief is the fourth of his Songs and Dances of Death. At the end of the battle Death appears over the battlefield as the Field Marshal, who has taken command of the battalions of dead soldiers. Maltman’s performance was a dramatic tour de force, full of histrionic power and frighteningly convincing. He was tremendously imposing, in total command of the stage and at times producing a startling, yet wholly appropriate, amount of volume. Yet again the ingenuity of the programme planning was revealed as we moved from the ‘Top Brass’ to the ordinary, rank-and-file soldier who is given voice by Gurney’s music and the words of his great friend Frederick Harvey in In Flanders. This song was also written in the trenches: it is dated 11 January 1917 ‘At Crucifix Corner, Theipval’. It’s as affecting as Severn Meadows and Maltman was the master of it. He made a good case for Somervell’s Think no More Lad with some characterful singing. Schumann’s Die beiden Grenadiere, telling of two of Napoleon’s soldiers returning home after being prisoners of war, was written nearly fifty years before Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn songs yet, though the style and musical vocabulary are very different, this Schumann song seems to anticipate in many ways the militaristic songs in Mahler’s collection – or, at least, it did in this fine performance. There was more rich characterisation to admire in Maltman’s delivery of Wolf’s tale of the drummer boy, Die Tambour and he projected strongly Schumann’s Der Soldat, the execution of a soldier seen through the eyes of one of the firing squad.
Finzi’s Channel Firing is one of his greatest songs. The words, by Hardy, tell a strange tale and some of Finzi’s music is suitably spooky. Maltman and Drake gave a magnetic performance. Somervell’s Into my Heart an air that kills is gentle and nostalgic in tone and offered a welcome contrast to the intensity of the Finzi. Housman’s collection of poems, A Shropshire Ladwascompleted in 1887 and published in 1896 so the poems are not connected with the Great War. However, the inclusion of three more of Butterworth’s settings in the last section of this recital was entirely fitting. When I was one and twenty is, in essence, a very simple song but Maltman characterised it superbly, while avoiding any expressive excess. The lads in their hundreds was beautifully nuanced and ideally paced. The delivery of Is my team Ploughing? was utterly compelling. Maltman used a distant mezza voce for the words of the dead youth and tellingly depicted the increasing awkwardness of his friend, who lives on, as the dénouement is reached.
To close, Maltman and Drake gave us Poulenc’s Lune d’Avril, the final song in his last song cycle, La Courte Paille (‘The Short Straw’). Though the middle of this song is impassioned its outer sections are very withdrawn and meditative and the penultimate line, ‘On a brisé tous les fusils’ (‘They have broken all the rifles’) surely explained its inclusion at the conclusion of this programme. A very special atmosphere was distilled in this performance and the slightly unexpected major chord on the piano at the very end most effectively wrote finis. Sadly, though it was crystal clear that the performers were trying to sustain the moment a section of the audience broke into precipitate applause before that last chord had even died away, thereby destroying the atmosphere that Maltman and Drake had worked so hard to develop. This same section of the audience had been too ready to applaud at the end of each section of the programme but here their eagerness was unforgiveable. It was insensitive to the music, inconsiderate to the rest of the audience and downright disrespectful to the performers.
However, even this could not detract from an exceptional recital. Christopher Maltman’s singing was superb throughout the evening as was his characterisation of and identification with the words and music. I deliberately chose not to follow the words in the programme, preferring to focus on the performers. I had no need to read the words in any case since Maltman’s diction was crystal clear all evening. The piano playing of Julius Drake was the rock upon which this recital was founded. It can’t be easy to play a programme such as this, which is not only technically demanding but also moves between one composer and another in a flash, necessitating immediate changes of style. Julius Drake was ‘with’ his singer every step of the way and, without drawing attention to himself, reminded us why he one of the leading accompanists currently before the public,
As an encore Christopher Maltman sang In Boyhood from John Ireland’s Housman cycle We’ll to the woods no more (1926/7). The words, he explained, were about friendship and so he dedicated the performance to the late Sir George Christie. It was a thoughtful note on which to finish a memorable evening. I do hope that one of our enterprising record labels will consider asking Christopher Maltman and Julius Drake to commit this programme to disc.