United Kingdom Brahms, Bridge, Bingham, Stanford, Grieg: Ailish Tynan (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 16.11.2018. (GPu)
Brahms – ‘Nachtigalen schwingen’, ‘Vorüber’, ‘Volkslied’, ‘Der Trauernde’, ‘Spanisches Lied’
Frank Bridge – ‘Mantle of Blue’, ‘Goldenhair’, ‘When you are old and grey’
Judith Bingham – ‘The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi’
Charles Villiers Stanford – ‘La belle dame sans Merci’
Grieg – Sechs Lieder, Op.48.
This concert, it should be said at once, was every bit as impressive as one has come to expect from these artists, one of the finest vocalist and accompanist duos around when it comes to the song recital. Apart from the high skills of both performers, this programme was beautifully and meaningfully planned – constituting a kind of master-class, as regards both words and music, about the essential nature of Romanticism. Song after song presented one or more of those antitheses between whose poles Romanticism’s energy flashes electrically, such as love and death, innocence and experience, dream and reality. Nor was madness – never far from some of the high peaks of Romanticism (think, for example, of Robert Schumann, Friedrich Hölderlin or John Clare) – without its presence in this fascinating programme.
It was, I feel sure, no accident that we began with the nightingale (in Brahms’s ‘Nachtigalen schwingen’, with a text by Hoffmann von Fallersleben) and ended – almost – with another nightingale in the fourth of Grieg’s Sechs lieder (the text this time being by K.J. Simcock after Walter von der Vogelweide). The myth of the suffering nightingale, which began in the classical world resonated through all subsequent poetry, not least that of Romanticism. The story of the two sisters Procne and Philomela is initiated when Tereus, married to one sister, rapes the other and then cuts out her tongue so that she can tell no one what he has done. His victim manages, however, to inform her sister by incorporating a message in some cloth she weaves. When the sisters flee, an axe-wielding Tereus pursues them. The Gods respond to the sisters’ prayers by turning one into a nightingale and the other into a swallow. Early versions of the myth disagree about which sister became which bird. In later poetry that I am familiar with, it is Philomela who becomes the nightingale. The nightingale’s song comes to symbolize love, but specifically love which brings with it the danger of death.
Throughout this recital, Tynan’s range of vocal colour, always appropriate to the text, and her ability to imply a complete context for each song were remarkable. Burnside’s skills as an accompanist, the range of colours he can elicit from the piano and his impeccable sense of time and phrase, are entirely at the service of Tynan and each song’s requirements. With these two at work together, each song becomes a miniature drama, a model of economical storytelling. Though neither her facial gestures or her body language is ever exaggerated, Tynan seems to successfully embody, as well as vocalise each character, to enact the emotional trajectory of each song/‘story’.
The Brahms sequence with which the recital began was quite magnificent, intensely beautiful, thoroughly passionate yet performed with absolute control. I shall long remember the performance of ‘Vorüber’ – the text of which contains yet another nightingale and has that aforementioned Romantic antithesis of love and death very much to the fore, both in the words by Hebbel and in Brahms’s response to them – the whole thing perfectly realized by these outstanding interpreters. The awareness of mortality – of a death to some degree desired – and the ‘sweet dream’ of love artistically ‘reconciled’ in the ‘dream’ of art as they couldn’t be in life.
After the power and beauty of these opening five songs by Brahms (which in themselves would have plentifully justified attendance at the concert), the programme continued with three songs by Frank Bridge. Bridge wasn’t, perhaps, well-served by the juxtaposition. Speaking as someone who admires many aspects of Bridge’s work, I have to admit that both ‘Mantle of blue’ and ‘Goldenhair’ sounded rather thin after the songs by Brahms. In part, I suspect, this was because in both cases the words set were themselves rather weak and derivative – ‘Mantle of blue’ sets a poem (‘A Cradle Song’) by Padraic Colum and ‘Goldenhair’ one (‘Lean Out of the Window’) by James Joyce. Colum’s work is generally excessively sentimental and, for all his later greatness as a novelist, the young Joyce was far from being a wholly successful poet. Perhaps as a consequence of this verbal insufficiency, Bridge’s music seems to be trying too hard, as if in compensation, and the effect, overall, feels rather forced. Still, these performances seemed to me make as much as might be made of these two songs. No apologies are needed for the third song by Bridges, a setting of Yeats’s ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep’ (itself a version of Ronsard’s ‘Quand vous serez bien vieille’). Here words and music, voice and piano are perfectly balanced. Bridge’s setting captures (and perhaps even enhances) the poem’s compassionate sense of one of those recurrent tensions so essentially creative for the Romantics, between the eternal and the temporal, in the speaker’s recognition that the addressee’s beauty will, in several senses, survive its physical decay and her bodily death. It almost goes without saying that Burnside and Tynan fully articulated the significance of both notes and music, as well as the relationship between them in manner both masterly and deeply moving.
A well-placed interval allowed one to reflect on and digest at least some of the riches one had heard up to this point. The second half of the programme began with what Burnside introduced as ‘two mad songs’, Judith Bingham’s ‘The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi’ and Stanford’s ‘La belle dame sans Merci’. ‘The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi’ sets a text compounded (by the composer) from poems by Joy Finzi, written after the death of her husband Gerald and a vivid description of an icy snowstorm in R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone (how many, I wonder, still read that novel?). Bingham has said that in Blackmore’s snowstorm she found a ‘landscape which perfectly captured Joy’s frozen and slightly unhinged emotional state and proved a good backdrop for her poems’. Across its seven or eight minutes ‘The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi’ encompasses a range of powerfully elemental emotions. Tynan’s identification with the implied protagonist seemed absolute and Burnside’s accompaniment (though the very use of that word seems unintentionally to demean the importance of his contribution) was astonishingly evocative of a landscape both internal and external (something else, of course, which is quintessentially, though not exclusively, typical of Romanticism). This was powerful stuff.
So, too, was Stanford’s Keats setting. As Arthur Jacobs puts it (in A History of Song, edited by Denis Stevens, 1971, Originally published in 1961) Stanford was ‘fully conscious of nineteenth-century German style in song-writing’, and that awareness was very evident in this song, which reminds one (without ever being merely derivative) of both Brahms and Schubert – not least in the switch from major to minor in the course of the song. Tynan was at her most mesmerizing here, both vocally and visually (in terms, that is of facial expression, movements of the eyes and physical posture). She so commands one’s attention that the smallest details become richly communicative. The shifts of tempo and dynamics in Stanford’s setting were perfectly judged by both performers.
By this stage of the concert I was, I must confess, both somewhat drained by the intensity of the experience I had already had and so excited by several of the earlier songs that I really found it hard to shift them from the forefront of my mind and pay full attention to what was yet to come, Grieg’s Sechs Lieder.
I was, however, struck by the beauty of Grieg’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Zur Rosenzeit’, another Romantic ‘narrative’ of the loss and death of beauty. Tynan’s phrasing here was exquisitely beautiful. Another highlight, for me, was the closing song, Grieg’s setting of ‘Ein Traum’ by Friedrich Bodenstedt, an attractive exploration of that relationship between dream and reality, so central to the Romantic sensibility. Its closing stanza deserves quotation (my translation):
O frühlingsgrüner Waldesraum!
Du lebst in mir durch alle Zeit –
Dort ward die Wirklichkeit zum Traum,
Dort ward der Traum zur Wirklichkeit!
[Oh woodland of spring-green,
You live in me through all time,
That was where reality turned into a dream,
That was where the dream turned into reality.]
Grieg’s setting of these lines is radiantly beautiful, and Tynan and Burnside achieved an appropriate sense of ecstasy in this glorious conclusion, bringing an outstanding concert to a triumphant close.