Captivating Schubert from Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton in Leeds

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Leeds Lieder – Liszt, Brahms, Wolf, Schubert: Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Nardus Williams (soprano) Joseph Middleton (piano), Leeds Town Hall, Leeds (live stream), 31.10.2020. (CS)

Iestyn Davies (c) Chris Sorensen

Liszt – ‘Oh, quand je dors’
Brahms – ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ Op.63 No.5
Wolf – ‘Kennst du das Land’
SchubertDie schöne Müllerin

Iestyn Davies’ performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin at Middle Temple Hall in July 2017, with pianist Julius Drake, prompted me to reflect on voice types, qualities and miens.  This Leeds Lieder recital with Joseph Middleton gave me an opportunity to revisit those reflections and cogitate anew.

But, first came three songs performed by Nardus Williams, whom I last saw in early October when she was ‘in the market for love’ at Glyndebourne, as the sweet-natured Ciboulette in Offenbach’s zany opérette bouffe.  The lyricism and power displayed on that occasion was in evidence again at Leeds Town Hall as her opulent soprano rippled through the Romantic rhapsodising of Liszt, Brahms and Wolf.  The floating arcs of Liszt’s ‘Oh, quand je dors’ sailed gracefully as Williams balanced exhilaration and tenderness, the ebb and flow of Middleton’s thoughtful, eloquent phrasing enhancing the dreamy intimacy.  Both Brahms’s ‘Meine Liebe is grün’ and Wolf’s ‘Kennst du das Land’ present a singer with plentiful obstacles to surmount, most particularly unexpected intervallic twists and modulatory meandering, and Williams’ wasn’t always entirely secure in negotiating them.  But, despite occasionally drifting a little from the piano’s foundations, she had the vocal strength and sheen to carry them off, and  a strong sense of the overall architecture of the songs.  The vast musical and emotional canvas of ‘Kennst du das Land’ was traversed with discernment and commitment, and the soft final exhortation, “Geht unser Weg! O Vater, laß uns ziehn!” (That our path leads! O father, let us go!), was beautifully shaped.

And, so, following the winter journey that Middleton and Ian Bostridge undertook on Thursday evening, another wanderer now began his travels, real and figurative.  Middleton bubbled merrily in ‘Das Wandern’ and Iestyn Davies set out with a spring in his step, a light heart and in buoyant voice.  As I found at Middle Temple, the higher pitched vocal line did at times seem distanced from, rather than integrated with, the piano.  In ‘Halt!’, for example, the wanderer’s bright-voiced anticipation upon espying a mill seemed at odds with Middleton’s low, gruff rumblings and grumblings.  It took me longer to ‘tune in’ to the sound world, but that’s perhaps unsurprising, since at Middle Temple the performers are embraced within the arc of the audience and on this occasion I was not actually present in the Hall – a reminder that live performances are a contract between performer and audience in a way that live-streamed concerts can never be.

Elsewhere, though, and especially when the vocal and piano registers were similar, Davies and Middleton achieved an engaging intimacy: ‘Tränenregen’ was wonderful in its fluency, easefulness and peace – only for the final stanza’s harmonies to subtly mar the sweetness.  Middleton’s sextuplets were feather-light in the second song, ‘Wohin?’, suggesting both the chatter of the babbling brook that the protagonist follows and his over-excited naivety – the latter also conjured by the cleanness and agility of Davies’ countertenor.  And, in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’, as the vocal line floated pristinely and smoothly above the piano’s warm rocking, the distance between the two only emphasised the miller’s innocence.  It is, however, an innocence that is teering on the edge of experience, as Davies’ pointed enunciation of the final phrase confirmed: he now has plenty of work, “Für die Hände, für’s Herze” (for my hands, for my heart).

‘Am Feierabend’ initiated an emotional shift.  Now Middleton’s dry arpeggio-spinning sounded agitated and Davies conveyed anxiety and unrest.  The duo employed rhythmic flexibility, easing the tempo, “Und da sitz’ ich in der grossen Runde,/ In der stillen kühlen Feierstunde” (And here I sit in the midst of the company, in the quiet, cool hour at work’s end), before the nervousness and frustration returned: how can the young man make the miller’s maiden aware of his love?  By the time we reached ‘Der Neugierige’ I was entranced, drawn into the young man’s introspection and questioning: “O Bächlein meiner Liebe, Wie bist du heut’ so stumm!” (Oh dear little stream, why are you so silent today?)  The piano seemed quietly indifferent, and the seamless purity of Davies’ wonderings, “Sag’, Bächlein, liebt sie mich?” (But tell me little stream, does she love me?) conveyed a tragic ingenuousness and hope.

‘Ungedald’ (Impatience) was jittery and fretful; I’m not sure that Middleton didn’t disrupt the regularity of the rhythm just a tad too much, though he certainly captured the protagonist’s instability and tension.  This song also seems one in which greater variety of vocal colour is needed than Davies, or perhaps the countertenor voice, can offer in order to communicate the piercing depth of the felt experience, as expressed through the leaping frustrations of the stanzas’ final line: “Dein ist mein Herz, und soll es ewig bleiben!” (My heart is yours, and always will be.)  In contrast, the honesty and vulnerability of ‘Morgengruss’ was wonderfully captured by Davies’ delicate vocal poetry and Middleton’s restrained dialogue with the vocal line.  The bewitching heightening of Davies’s plea to the flowers to shake off the veil of dreams and reawaken, refreshed and free (“Nun schüttelt ab der Träume Flor/ Und hebt euch frisch und frei empor”), was matched by the piano’s final cadential dissolution.

‘Des Müllers Blumen’ blended hope and fear, and Davies showed us that a beautifully simple vocal utterance can speak as powerfully as complexity.  I loved the way that he injected renewed weight and focus into his imagined dreamlike whisper, “‘Ihr zu: Vergiss, vergiss mein nicht!’ Das ist es, was ich meine” (“Don’t, oh don’t forget me!” That’s what I want to say.), to which Middleton responded with warmth and earnestness.  The small nuances of ‘Pause’ were understatedly but pointed – there were tremulous grace notes from Middleton who exploited the harmonic progressions expressively – conveying the poignancy of the imagery: the silent lute, hanging on the wall and tied with a green ribbon, and a heart too full to sing.  Davies’s worry that the wind will make the lute’s strings speak, “Da wird mir so bange und es durchschauert mich” (I shall be afraid and shudder), was terribly fragile; the connection between the lute’s sighs and the miller’s own intensely wrought suffering – “Ist es der Nachklang meiner Liebespein?” (Is it the echo of the pain of my love?) – was movingly communicated through the slightest vocal intensifying.  After this, the insouciance of ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’ seemed terribly ironic, all the more so because of the lucidity of Middleton’s counterpoint to the vocal line.

If Davies didn’t quite make me ‘feel’ the disruptive pain of the emotive chasms I hear in ‘Mein!’, or – despite his accuracy and agility – the real anger and aggression of ‘Der Jäger’, which spills over into indignation of ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ (and, here, what wonderfully feather-light spiralling from Middleton!) and surges beneath the bewilderment of ‘Die böse Farbe’ (again, the piano’s stabbing lucidity was dramatic), it was of no real import.  The countertenor has a wonderful way of drawing the listening in and the captivating directness of the cycle’s final songs was powerful.  ‘Die liebe Farbe’ and ‘Trockne Blumen’ took us into the frightening psyche of the protagonist who sings to nature not to find the sensory or sublime, but to nurture his desire for dissolution.  The resulting emotional inertia was brilliantly communicated by the piano’s stubborn repeating note, embedded in the middle of the texture, which persists throughout ‘Die liebe Farbe’.

A rare slip in ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ was quickly put right, and the brook’s reply to the wanderer’s draining, aching questions was confident and composed: no wonder the water was so inviting.  Davies’s reflection, “Ach, unten, da unten, Die kühle Ruh’!” (Down below, down below, there is cool rest!”, was almost unbearably gentle and vulnerable; there could be no resistance to the brook’s imploring in the final song.  Broadening the tempo, Middleton and Davies eased the young lover into rest as the brook compelled, “Des Baches Wiegenlied Schlaf’ aus deine Freude, schlaf’ aus dein Leid!” (Sleep away your joy, sleep away your sorrow!), and with the piano’s closing diminution we saw the expansive skies awaiting: “Und der Himmel da droben, wie ist er so weit.” (And the heavens above are so wide!)

As the applause quietened Davies remarked ruefully to the audience in Leeds Town Hall that, with the closure of concert halls imminent, it looked as it would be some time before live music could be enjoyed again.  And, so they offered an encore: Schubert’s ‘Erster Verlust’. It seems impossible that this beautifully tender song was composed when Schubert was just 18 years old.  The poignancy was both musical and figurative.  At the close, when the piano re-established the minor key that the voice, through memories of past love and joy, had tried to dispel, we felt the pain of fragile hopes cruelly crushed.  And, though it is the ‘fair days’ of ‘first love’ for which the poet-speaker yearns, when Davies closed the song with a question, “Ach, wer bringt die schönen Tage,/ Jene holde Zeit zurück!” (Ah, who will bring back those fair days), it seemed that it was absence of music itself that we mourned.

Claire Seymour

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