Glowing Strauss from April Fredrick and the English Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss: April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (conductor). Performed at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, and broadcast on ESO’s YouTube channel, 18.9.2020. (JQ)

April Fredrick

R. Strauss – Vier letzte Lieder Op. posth. (arr, James Ledger); Morgen! Op.27/4 (arr. Tony Burke)

In the last few months, British orchestras have been exploring urgently and creatively a number of solutions to enable them to perform again as ensembles within the Covid-19 restrictions. The drivers behind all this endeavour have included the maintenance of artistic standards, the need to connect with audiences once again, and the pressing need to generate some revenue. In July and August, members of the English Symphony Orchestra and their Artistic Director, Kenneth Woods recorded a series of concerts which will be released on the orchestra’s YouTube channel over the coming months. The venue was the spacious and acoustically excellent Wyastone Concert Hall, on the outskirts of Monmouth.

I was given advance press access to view the first concert in the series; for this the ESO was joined by the American-born, British-based soprano, April Fredrick, who is their Affiliate Artist. I first encountered Ms Fredrick when I was mightily impressed with her performance of the title role in John Joubert’s opera, Jane Eyre (review). Among the subsequent occasions when I’ve heard her, I recall with particular pleasure her 2019 premiere of David Matthews’ Le Lac for soprano and orchestra, albeit in a less-than-ideal acoustic (review). Just a few weeks later, she impressed me again in the revival of John Joubert’s An English Requiem at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester (review). I know that she has performed Strauss’s wonderful set of autumnal songs several times in the past but this was the first time I had heard her sing them.

There was an extra frisson to this performance because, not only were Vier letzte Lieder the last music she performed prior to lockdown, but also this was Ms Fredrick’s first public appearance since catching Covid-19 in March. Writing on the ESO’s website, she says: ‘The fatigue, which is one of the virus’ symptoms, was like nothing I had experienced, giving a new dimension to the multiple uses in the cycle of the wonderful German adjective ‘müde’ (‘tired, weary, worn out’). But I will also never forget the incredible, almost euphoric joy I felt the first time I walked out of my front door after my quarantine – what an unthinkable privilege to be well and free to move about again. A stark encounter with mortality, weariness, euphoria, and ‘weiter, stille Friede’ (wide, still peace): the virus provided me with the most curious sort of gift of experience which has forever stamped and deepened my understanding of this work.’

In order to accommodate social distancing requirements, the music was performed in arrangements for reduced orchestral forces. James Ledger’s arrangement of Vier letzte Lieder was made in 2005 for Dame Felicity Lott, who premiered it that year at London’s Wigmore Hall with the Nash Ensemble conducted by Bernard Haitink. Ledger reduced Strauss’s scoring to 13 players, comprising single woodwind (including some doubling), 2 horns, piano, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. On James Ledger’s website I found a short essay written by him about this arrangement. It’s well worth reading in full but, for now, suffice to say that he justifies – if that’s the right word – his arrangement by saying that the reduced forces make the set of songs more ‘portable’ and permits them to be performed in the context of chamber music. He also argues, very plausibly, that the use of even modest instrumental forces admits a far greater range of colours than would be possible if the singer were accompanied, as is sometimes the case, by piano only.  I love these songs, not least for their gorgeous orchestral finery and I wondered whether something might be lost in the slimmed- down version. It’s true there were occasions when I pined for Strauss’s full range of sonorities but these occasions were few and far between. On this first hearing (for me) of James Ledger’s arrangement, I would say it’s a great success.

So, too, was the performance. Not long after the start of ‘Frühling’ Strauss begins to write in invitingly soaring lines for his soloist. Ms Fredrick grasped the opportunity eagerly. She sang, as she did throughout the programme, with clear, well-focussed tone and she made the composer’s decorative long lines sound lovely and even. The orchestral accompaniment was even more delicate than we are accustomed to hearing in the original but I felt the sound was sufficiently full (Ledger seems to use the piano to fill in some of the missing texture). There was a palpable sense of ecstasy in April Fredrick’s account of this song.

‘September’ was equally good. Again, the singer spun a fine line and the roulades in the vocal part were delivered with clarity. The close (from ‘Langsam tut er die Müdegewordenen Augen zu’) was exquisitely poised before we heard a golden-toned horn solo in the postlude. April Fredrick put heart and soul into ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. Her enunciation of words and music was very expressive, though never at the expense of the line. The ESO’s leader, Zoë Beyers contributed a tender and eloquent violin solo before the soprano voice soared rapturously at ‘Und die Seele unbewacht…’ Here I slightly – but only slightly – missed the full top-to-bottom sound of the woodwind chording in Strauss’s original, but even so the performance was very satisfying.

The wonderful outpouring at the start of ‘Im Abendrot’ inevitably sounded a little underpowered when delivered by just 13 instruments but, heard in the context of the rest of the set as arranged by James Ledger, it sounded well enough. Sensibly, Kenneth Woods did not draw out the tempo as some conductors have done in my experience; instead, he kept the music moving forward, allowing the autumnal poetry to register while maintaining momentum. April Fredrick’s singing was dedicated and pure-toned, while the ESO displayed great sensitivity, not least in the way they achieved the sunset glow in the extended orchestral postlude.

This was a very fine account of Strauss’s last gift to the soprano voice. We had a lovely singer to whom the opportunity to perform the songs again clearly meant a great deal; we had a conductor who directed with skill and empathy; and we had 13 players who did full justice to a very successful reduced scoring.

I am afraid I haven’t got much information about Tony Burke’s arrangement of Morgen! but I believe it’s a recent piece of work and the scoring is similar to that employed by James Ledger – the piano substitutes for the harp. Even more than in ‘September’ the solo violin has a key role and Zoë Beyers’ playing was rapt and eloquent. So too was the singing of April Fredrick who once more showed her command of line and legato. At the end of a lovely performance, her last couple of phrases were exquisitely poised – and equally well ‘placed’ by the players.

This short Strauss concert gave great pleasure. To complement the fine singing and playing, the video and audio presentation has been expertly handled by Tim Burton and Phil Rowlands respectively. There are English subtitles.

It occurred to me to wonder if April Fredrick has in her repertoire Samuel Barber’s wonderful Knoxville: Summer of 1915. A coupling of that piece and Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its original chamber scoring would be an enticing future programme for this series.

This concert can be accessed from 7.30pm UK time on Friday 18 September by clicking here.  Access is free for four days, after which the concert will be available only to ESO subscribers. The next concert in the series, also featuring April Fredrick as soloist, will be available on 18 October. Details of this concert, entitled ‘Visions of Childhood’, and other programmes in the series can be found here.

John Quinn

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