United Kingdom Tre Voci: Natalie Clein (cello), Julius Drake (piano), Fleur Barron (mezzo soprano), King’s Place, London, 30.09.2017 (CS)
Zoltán Kodály – Sonatina
J.S. Bach – ‘Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze’ from Cantata: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV61; Spiritual Songs (arr. Britten)
John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Sir John Tavener – Threnos (solo cello); Akhmatova Songs
Deborah Pritchard – Storm Song
Michael Berkeley – ‘Sonnet for Orpheus’ from Three Rilke Songs
Leoš Janáček – Pohádka
Franz Schubert – Auf dem Strom D943
The word ‘indisposed’ must send a pulse of dread through the heart of the concert hall director. How is one to find a replacement mezzo soprano who can sing anything from Bach to Berkeley with just 24 hours’ notice? Fleur Barron, who flew into London for this concert with cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Julius Drake when illness prevented Ruby Hughes from performing, did more than simply ensure that the ‘show went on’. She brought incredible poise and expressive weight – not to mention a thrillingly dark and rich-veined mezzo, and a striking stage presence – to Kings Place for this concert in the Cello Unwrapped series.
It was Clein and Drake, however, who opened the concert, with Zoltán Kodály’s 1922 Sonatina for cello and piano, written originally to replace an abandoned movement for the Op.4 Cello Sonata but subsequently retained as an independent work. Immediately Clein’s immersion in the Romantic and rhetorical arguments was apparent: her cello quite literally ‘sang’, the sound beautifully fresh and bright, the extended span of the phrases shaped with naturalness. The differentiation of the weight she applied to the bow stroke over different registers was both astonishingly detailed and obviously instinctive and unmannered. Clein’s playing is quite ‘introspective’: that’s not to suggest that she does not communicate – the tone is often searing and intense – but her sound is quite restrained, and she relishes the small details. In a venue of the dimensions of Kings Place, such nuances register tellingly. Drake found his niche in the pan-Slavic rhythmic and declamatory idiom with customary facility and composure.
Clein and Drake also performed, after the interval, Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairytale), which for me was a highlight of the programme. I was not familiar with this work – which a little research suggests has complicated origins: first performed in Brno in 1910 as a three-movement work it was later revised by the composer into four movements, before a reversion to the original plan. But, such ‘context’ was incidental to my experience: in the opening bars, I was instantly translated to the vivid, visceral world of the composer’s operas as the cello’s pizzicatos rang against the piano’s delicately rippling waters. The work is based on an epic poem by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky – one of the leading Russian poets and writers during the first half of the 19th century, credited with introducing Romanticism to Russia –and the performers imbued the passionate exchanges between the piano and cello with a strong sense of narrative and a dynamic energy which was captivating.
Barron joined Clein and Drake for works by J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert. Clein offered an alert and airy bass line, which was always melodic, to support the aria ‘Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze’ (Open yourself, my entire heart) from Bach’s Cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. Barron’s vibrato was perhaps a little too full – the tuning wasn’t always fully centred, but this may have been a result of understandable nervousness at the start of the recital, given the assumed lack of rehearsal time. That said, Barron was attentive to the nuances of the text, and as she relaxed her smile of enjoyment undoubtedly enriched the tone! Drake’s accompaniment proceeded with a calmness and composure which was suggestive, in this context, of untroubled faith and spiritual gratification; even the sparsest accompanying textures were deeply expressive. The selection of some of Benjamin Britten’s arrangements of Bach’s ‘spiritual songs’ which followed included a wonderfully direct and potent rendition of ‘Bist du bei mir’.
Schubert’s ‘Auf dem Strom’ (On the stream) concluded the performance. Clein’s melodic preface to each verse (originally for the horn) struck just the right balance between ardour and tension, as the even gentleness of the piano’s opening triplets was gradually disturbed by the waves which propel the departing boat downstream, ‘mit unerflehter Schnelle’ (with unsympathetic speed). In stanza three, the variations to the piano’s figuration and rhythm injected further forward momentum, as the shore dashed past and the poet-speaker was borne towards the open sea, though Drake balanced expressive detail with restraint and the voice was never overwhelmed. Throughout, Schubert’s harmonic oppositions and diversions seemed to convey the painful conflict between the protagonist’s recollections of the blissful past and his lament for his present loneliness – as when Barron, who was at ease with the often high-lying vocal line, coloured the ascending chromaticism of the fragile dream of a ‘comforting future’ (‘tröstend Glück!’) which so poignantly closes the final stanza.
This was wonderfully lyrical and communicative music-making, but it was when the performers probed more recent musical territory that their collective expression gained even greater intensity. John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs was beautifully ‘cool’, Barron singing without vibrato and with a strong feeling for the natural rhythm of the text (which is taken from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), while the percussive tap of Drake’s fingers and knuckles on the closed piano added a touch of the exotic. In contrast, in Deborah Pritchard’s Storm Song (a setting of a poem by Jeanette Winterson commissioned by Clein) the cello’s tremolando and the piano’s rattling gestures evoked the threat of a looming storm.
The echoing interplay of cello and voice was absorbing both in Pritchard’s song setting and in three of John Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs the starkness of which allowed us to appreciate the performers’ clarity and accuracy. The Songs followed a meditative but poised performance of the composer’s Threnos for solo cello, in which the grainy tone of Clein’s opening gesture evolved into a panoply of delicate and precisely delineated cello timbres. Perhaps best of all was Michael Berkeley’s ‘Sonnet to Orpheus’, the second (originally for soprano and solo viola) of the composer’s Three Rilke Songs in which, seated side by side, Clein and Barron powerfully communicated the quiet pathos of the poet-speaker’s search for the elusive, ethereal ‘almost-girl’ whose song invades his ear, ‘Where is her death?’, ‘Where will I find her?’