United Kingdom Schumann, Ryan Wigglesworth, Janáček: Mark Padmore (tenor); Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano); Ryan Wigglesworth (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 12.5.2016. (RB)
Schumann: Liederkreis Op 39
Ryan Wigglesworth: Echo and Narcissus
Janáček: The Diary of One who Disappeared
Soloists: Sarah Platt (soprano), Charlotte Schoeters (soprano), Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Sarah Maxted (mezzo-soprano), Helena Cooke (alto), Debbi Steele (alto)
Ryan Wigglesworth is currently the composer in residence for the English National Opera and this was the London première of his new work, Echo and Narcissus. Wigglesworth wrote the piece for Mark Padmore and Pamela Helen Stephen who gave the première at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2014. On this occasion Wigglesworth and Padmore were joined by Victoria Simmonds who will shortly be appearing as Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park.
The recital opened with Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis which the composer wrote in 1840 in his famous year of song. There was much to admire in this performance by Padmore and Wigglesworth although I did not find it completely convincing. The balance was not quite right in the opening song, ‘In der Fremde’: I would have welcomed greater vocal heft from Padmore although I liked Wigglesworth’s rich rippling accompaniment. ‘Intermezzo’ was better with Padmore capturing the romantic ardour of the song with enormous sensitivity. Wigglesworth did a marvellous job conjuring the hunting horns in ‘Waldesgespräch’ and Padmore brought dramatic flair to the third stanza in his exhortations against the destructive enchantments of women. Wigglesworth captured perfectly the dreamy world of Eusebius in the opening measures of ‘Mondnacht’ while Padmore sustained the tension in the vocal line, creating a sense of wonderment. Wigglesworth’s realisation of the rustling of the tree tops was impressive in ‘Schöne Fremde’ although Padmore’s vocal line was a little too introspective and did not quite convey the romantic urgency of the song. Padmore brought a rich dark colouring to ‘Auf einer Burg’ and sustained the line beautifully, capturing the ineffable, timeless quality of the piece. The performers did not quite plumb the depth of the composer’s sadness in ‘Wehmut’ although ‘Zwielicht’ was highly expressive and unsettling. ‘Frühlingsnacht’ is one of Schumann’s most ecstatic songs and Padmore and Wigglesworth conveyed the rapturous sense of exhilaration, bringing the cycle to a euphoric conclusion.
Wigglesworth’s new work is a setting of Ted Hughes’s narrative poem ‘Echo and Narcissus’ from his Tales from Ovid collection which was published in 1997. Wigglesworth wanted to set Hughes’s poem to music since reading the work in 1997 but he only decided on the form of the piece many years later following a performance of Janáček’s The Diary of one who Disappeared. Wigglesworth decided to use the same forces as the Czech composer for his new work: the role of the Chorus or narrator is taken by the mezzo-soprano, a further trio of female voices become Echo (heard predominantly offstage) and Narcissus is sung by the tenor. While the music was in part inspired by Janáček’s Diary it reminded me much more of the Britten Canticles. The Chorus acts as the narrator but also provides a commentary on the action and becomes increasingly involved in the plight of the protagonists as the work progresses – a device also used by Britten in his Rape of Lucretia.
The opening section was angry and abrasive with Wigglesworth producing dark murky growls from the bass of the keyboard. Simmonds was superb in the role of the Chorus and we heard her in stringent dramatic mode at the start before adopting softer vocal timbres in the subsequent more lyrical sections of the work. Padmore did a superb job bringing the dramatic dialogue to life with the offstage echo. He gave us perfectly sculpted phrases and excellent diction and he captured the tension in Hughes’ dialogue brilliantly (for example at ‘I would sooner de dead/Than let you touch me’). The final stanza where Simmonds spoke and sang the words was particularly affecting and haunting. This is clearly an important new work and some of the writing was powerful and affecting although I don’t think it is in the same league as the Britten Canticles or indeed Janáček’s Diary. Having said that, I would like to listen to it again before passing any final judgement on it.
Janáček’s The Diary of One who Disappeared was written late in the composer’s life when the 62 year-old composer was in love with Kamila Stösslová, a woman in her twenties who was happily married with two children. The poems on which the set is based originally appeared in 1916 in a Brno newspaper. The tell the story of a love affair between a country lad (Janíčku) who disappeared from a village in Eastern Moravia and left a diary telling of his love for a gypsy girl (Zefka). Janáček’s cycle is regarded by many as a miniature opera and Padmore showed us his operatic credentials by giving us a towering performance of the work. In the opening stanzas he used a wide variety of dynamics and vocal timbres to depict Janíčku’s growing sexual desires for Zefka and his attempts to resist temptation bringing the drama vividly and powerfully to life. There were moments of high drama and supreme lyricism with Padmore highly attentive to the language throughout. Wigglesworth proved a consummate accompanist, responding flexibly to Padmore’s vocal inflections and depicting the composer’s pastoral tone painting in a highly imaginative way. The middle section where Zefka seduces Janíčku was highly charged: Simmonds appeared from the back of the stage and she and Padmore eyed each other before she slowly loosed the red scarf draped around her neck and let it drop to the floor. She proved a very slinky, sexy seductress and she offered some highly charged and dramatic singing. I really enjoyed the bright open colours Padmore and Wigglesworth brought to the final few poems and the way they conveyed Janíčku’s growing sense of urgency and exhilaration. The final stanza where Janíčku thinks of Zefka awaiting him with their son in her arms was one of those rare moments of uplifting, life affirming joy.
The Wigmore audience responded warmly and Padmore, Simmonds and Wigglesworth performed ‘In der Nacht’ from Schumann’s Spanishes Liederspiel as an encore.
Overall, this was a superb recital. Echo and Narcissus is clearly an important work and one which I hope will enter the mainstream repertoire before too long.