United Kingdom Roussel, Schubert, Chausson – An Evening with Danielle de Niese: Danielle de Niese (soprano), Sir James Galway (flute), Mark Simpson (clarinet), Menahem Pressler (piano), Navarra String Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27.4.2018. (JPr)
Roussel – Deux poèmes de Ronsard for voice & flute, Op.26
Schubert – String Quartet in C minor, D.703 (Quartettsatz); Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) for voice, clarinet & piano, D.965
Chausson – Chanson perpétuelle, Op.37
Schubert – Der Tod und das Mädchen, D.531; String Quartet in D minor, D.810 (‘Death and the Maiden’)
After being closed for about 2½ years for ‘renovation and refurbishment’ the Southbank’s concrete splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall has reopened. I suspect what has been done to it over that time must be well hidden because what I saw seemed little changed. The concert was advertised as ‘An evening with Daniele de Niese’ and was seemingly curated by her. We were told in the programme how there would be ‘themes of love, nature, life and death’ and De Niese explained ‘There is a yin and yang to this programme. The theme of rebirth and spring in the ending of The Shepherd on the Rock is balanced in the Chausson and Death and the Maiden by the wintriness and of course death, which comes as final, yet peaceful release.’ All very worthy but when the Schubert Quartet lasted longer than the first half of the concert it made for an evening not so much with Danielle de Niese as with the fine Navarra String Quartet. Maybe some in the audience had come to hear them, unfortunately I had not.
The music being performed was clearly very important to Daniele de Niese but as ‘An evening with’ it did not work for me despite the presence of two living musical legends Sir James Galway and Menahem Pressler – with their fantastic combined age of 172 years – as well as Glyndebourne’s Australian-American chatelaine herself.
The concert began with a pair of songs by Albert Roussel, Deux poèmes de Ronsard, Op.26, with the simple accompaniment of James Galway’s flute. ‘Rossignol, mon mignon’ and ‘Ciel, aer, et vens’ were premiered in 1924 and are fairly quiet introspective pieces. Throughout the flute seems somewhat independent of the vocal line as if it has its own things to ‘say’ to us, which indeed it does. In the first song it portrays the nightingale and in the second one the ‘’sky, air, and wind’. As a result, the singer gets little support but De Niese coped reasonably well with the taxing high line of the two Ronsard settings and the performances had a certain pastoral charm. The programme contained no translations of the texts – which were available separately though few in the audience seemed to have them – and yet strangely the lights in the auditorium were left up during the entirety of the concert.
It seems Franz Schubert was something of a frustrated opera composer. Since none of his stage works had any great success, he overcame his frustration by his prolific Lieder output for voice and piano. We could read how Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) was something De Niese had ‘studied at 14, then at 19 at the Marlboro School of Music, and then performed in New York when I was 25.’ Unfortunately, she was shielded from fully communicating this and her other songs by the music stand between her and us. This was the last of Schubert’s more than 600 songs and written in October 1828 shortly before his death. Despite De Niese’s voice gaining in richness it retains much of its famed soubrette quality and there was a touching immediacy in her delivery of Schubert’s words and music which ascend from the apparent depths of despair to the euphoria of the coming spring. Notable also was the melting legato phrases of her musical dialog with Mark Simpson’s eloquent clarinet, all underpinned by the enchanting hesitancy of Pressler’s quietly rippling pianism.
Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle was another cheery song depicting a woman lamenting her abandonment and contemplating suicide. Pressler whose pedal-less playing evocatively began the melody leading to De Niese’s subtle entrance. She sang the first half with a certain restraint but as the work grew in intensity – and moved from lament to a climactic passionate outburst – so did her vibrato and the volume of her voice. Some of De Niese’s best singing was in Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) a deeply expressive miniature masterpiece in which a young woman pleads with death to pass her by. This led into the performance of the eponymous String Quartet since its second movement consists of themes and variations based on that song.
Earlier the Navarra String Quartet’s performance of Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C Minor was, by turns, fiery, dramatic and coruscating and revealed the ensemble to be evenly matched, with the violins and viola gently intertwining and Brian O’Kane’s cello forging its own path and glowing – rather than growling -underneath.
Schubert wrote his D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet in March 1824, shortly after the A minor ‘Rosamunde’ and I understand no other quartet by the composer is entirely in the minor mode. Its key was often associated in the musical language of Schubert’s time with struggle, turmoil and tragedy. The emotional complexity of ‘Death and the Maiden’ was clear from the Navarra String Quartet’s formidable and impassioned playing. Nevertheless, I would have been far happier to have just heard the second movement and there to have been further contributions from James Galway and the singer herself. For some reason both De Niese and Pressler – 94 years young – remained sitting distractingly behind the quartet throughout this lengthy work.
The concert was now well past its advertised finishing time: thinking it was over I nearly had exited, yet following the personable De Niese’s heartfelt expression of love for her parents who were in the audience to see and hear her she brought – together with the remarkable Pressler – an appropriate mix of sang froid and burgeoning desire to Sred shumnovo bala (Amid the din of the ball) Tchaikovsky’s setting of Tolstoy’s words