United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Chausson: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton & Michelle Fleming [violins], Eoin Schmidt-Martin [viola], Emma Denton [cello]), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.2020. (CS)
Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge
Chausson – Poème de l’amour et de la mer (arranged for quartet and piano by Franck Villard)
I have to confess that I am not very familiar with Ernest Chausson’s music. No violinist can ignore the French composer’s Poème, but beyond that I haven’t ventured much further than some of the songs and the piano quartet – though glancing back through my reviews I see that in 2014 I did enjoy a performance of Chausson’s Concerto in D for violin, piano and string quartet Op.21 given by the Carducci Quartet at Kings Place, with violinist Katharine Gowers and pianist Charles Owen.
So, this concert at the Barbican Hall offered a welcome opportunity to hear Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer (1882-90, revised 1893) in which the Carducci Quartet were joined by mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Julius Drake (the latter replacing Sir Antonio Pappano, whom travel restrictions foiled). The work was originally composed for voice, orchestra and piano, but was presented here as arranged by the French composer-conductor Franck Villard for voice and piano quintet – an ensemble that Chausson himself employed in his Chanson perpétuelle of 1898 in which the soprano soloist can be accompanied by either orchestra or piano quinet (another work that I ought to get to know).
In Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Chausson sets two poems by his friend, Maurice Bouchor, whose name, though sometimes associated with Verlaine, has more or less vanished from the history of French literature. ‘La fleur des eaux’ (The flower of the waters) and ‘La mort de l’Amour’ (The death of Love) clearly express a man’s love for a woman, but the work seems to be most frequently sung by a mezzo-soprano (though the first performance in 1893, in a voice-piano version, was given by Belgian tenor, Desire Demest, with Chausson himself at the piano.)
Bouchor’s vers libre overflows with indulgent symbolist imagery – billowing seas and perfumed flowers, singing breezes and quivering grass, floating islands and a thousand golden roses – and is both extravagantly sensory and tenderly nostalgic in its attempt to capture an ineffable reality. The romanticised natural world embodies the poet’s passion and desire; and also, as the waves ebb, no longer kissing the sand, his fears that his life too will fade with the loss of love.
Chausson responds with rich Romanticism which holds the poet-singer in a warm embrace, the melodies swirling like waves through the strings. The Carducci Quartet relished both the fervour and the fragility of Chausson’s ceaselessly unfolding conversations and evolving thematic transformations. It can’t have been easy for the musicians – spaced widely across the Barbican Hall stage with Drake positioned to the rear – to ‘lean in’, as it were, but while Matthew Denton was characteristically energised in his leadership there was no sense of effortfulness. If the piano seemed a little ‘separate’ from the strings I think, based on this single hearing, that’s because it’s the score places the piano a little apart, aligned with the voice, and Drake was, as always, both alert and intuitively sensitive.
Images such as the rivulets that dampen the beloved’s dress (“Ruisseaux qui mouillerez sa robe”) and the half-opened sky from which roses rain (“Et du ciel entr’ouvert pleuvaient sur nous des roses”) took ardent musical form. When the poet’s heart leapt and flew towards the lover (“Mon cœur vola vers toi”), the piano’s repeating chords expressed both wonder and ecstasy. And, when the mood darkened, Emma Denton’s high cello solo and the agitated piano accompaniment captured the turbulence of the poet’s heart. Perhaps in the instrumental interlude, one sensed Chausson striving for a diversity and richness which the smaller ensemble cannot really provide, but the cohesion were sustained and compelling, and the solo melodies, largely for cello and viola, were committed and sure.
There is a certain ‘sameness’ about Chausson’s score but one which Dame Sarah Connolly absolutely overcame, avoiding an excess of sentimentality and languidness. Her mezzo-soprano bloomed radiantly and easily through the ecstatic peaks but also found a sweetness which conveyed the tenderness of love. Though occasionally the enunciation was a little indistinct, Connolly captured the ‘sound-spirit’ of the French, responding to the poetic highs and lows. With sombre, cool focus, she conveyed the poet’s inexpressible horror that love is dead, falling to muted depths when the imagery took a Gothic turn – the beech trees are spectres, the beloved’s strange smile freezes the poet’s blood, their pale foreheads are like the brows of the dead, (“Comme des fronts de morts nos fronts avaient pâli”). One truly felt the pain and terror of the reality that the poet sees written in his beloved’s wide eyes, when Connolly pronounced with nobility and poignancy, “l’oubli”: Forgotten. The first violin and cello reflected for a moment, before the memory of love dissolved into silence.
Works for voice and piano quintet are not abundant but fortunately Ralph Vaughan Williams provided the performers with a masterpiece to complement Chausson’s Poème, and the Carducci Quartet and Drake were joined by tenor Ian Bostridge at the start of the evening to perform On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’ setting of six of the 63 poems which form A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
In fact, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, superficially at least, might seem to have more in common with the idiom of Chausson’s Poème, than the impressionistic refinements of Wenlock Edge. And, I felt that it was more of a challenge for the instrumentalists to work as an ensemble in this work, as they strove to capture the vivid immediacy of the precise musical imagery – the swirling, tremulous rush of the strings’ stormy wind in the opening bars; the magical hush of the strings’ entry in ‘From far, from eve and morning’; the insistence and strength of the faux light-hearted pizzicato double-stops in ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’.
The concert was recorded and no doubt the BBC engineers will do their stuff and achieve integration and balance. And, my ear did ‘tune in’. But, initially at least, the strings and piano seemed rather distanced which had the effect of ‘isolating’ the voice – though this was not in itself necessarily a disadvantage for it emphasised the sense of ‘progression’ which Vaughan Williams’ selection and ordering of the poems infers, if never directly states, and Bostridge assumed the role of protagonist – one who experiences, over time, the ravages of love and mortality – with authority.
And, so, in ‘On Wenlock Edge’ the poet-speaker seemed to declaim against a stormy hinterland, agitated by the wind’s assault on the wooded escarpment, blown back through time. Bostridge darkened his low tenor as he reflected on the patterns of history, ‘’twas before my time”, connecting past and present through intensification, enrichening “The blood that warms an English yeoman,/ The thoughts that hurt him, they were there”, and leaning into the final assertion. The song was restless, troubled, permanently in motion as it moved between epochs. The cosmic anguish was stilled by Drake’s una corda brushstrokes at the start of ‘From far, from eve and morning’, and the more personal context of the poem was reflected in Bostridge’s restraint and quasi-reverence: “From far, from eve and morning/ And yon twelve-winded sky,/ The stuff of life to knit me/ Blew hither: here am I.” The wind and life are one: so spoke the soft strings, and so confirmed the tenor in the closing bars, “Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters/ I take my endless way.” supported by Drake’s harp-like breezes.
The personae of ‘Is my team ploughing?’ fought a bitter battle. Though the muted upper strings established a gentle nostalgia, and Bostridge posed the questions issued from the grave with lyric sweetness, a dark fierceness crept in even before those questions had concluded, initiating a snarling surge from Drake and Emma Denton into the angry ripostes from the living. The communication between the musicians and between the performers and the Hall was intense and dramatic. Bostridge was almost belligerent, dismissing the questioner, “Ay, she lies down lightly,/ She lies down not to weep”, and the dead man who has lost both love and life responded with a surprising, frightening anger – “Is my friend hearty, Now I am thin and pine” – which seemed fuelled by a savage cynicism. Bostridge seemed almost to shout the final rebuff, “Yes, lad, I lie easy, I lie as lads would choose”, and despite the pained fragmentation of the final phrase, “never ask me … whose”, the unrest resurged in the vigorous rhythms of the instrumental postlude. Vaughan Williams’ musical dramas may over-burden Housman’s quiet understatement, but here the song assuredly assumed its own life and identity.
Vaughan Williams could match the poet’s terse irony when he wanted too, though, and ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’ was briefly and bluntly despatched. Ernest Newman may have commented that in ‘Bredon Hill’ the ‘frame is bigger than the picture; the background is more important than the foreground’, but here the sonorous blur of bells remained distanced, allowing Bostridge’s relaxed lyricism to speak, melody and word beautiful synthesised. As the memories sharpened, so the bells’ clanging neared, Drake’s jangling clarion injecting a propelling energy which ultimately dissolved in poignant recollection, as Bostridge remembered, his high head voice firm but vulnerable, “‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,/ And we will hear the chime,/ And come to church in time.’” The still, upper strings were as cold as the Christmas snows, Drake’s quiet tolling funereal. The personal narrative of loss pushed Bostridge to a peak of anguish, “Oh noisy bells be dumb”.
‘Clun’ had a calming lilt but its delicate sweetness did not entirely dispel its haunting sadness, as conveyed by Bostridge’s light, falling phrases, “And lads knew trouble at Knighton/ When I was a Knighton lad”. The accumulating griefs that gather on a lad’s shoulders as he journeys through life, culminated in the troubling recognition that the longed for ‘home’ was “Not Thames, not Teme is the river, /Nor London nor Knighton the town”, an assertion made fraught by the agitated chromaticism in the strings and exposure of the high voice. Instead, “’Tis a long way”; chorale-like chords brought about a close, though not closure.
At the end of the concert, Ian Bostridge joined the other musicians for an encore: an arrangement by Iain Farrington of Gabriel Fauré’s vocal duet ‘Pleurs d’or’, a Barbican commission designed to mirror the instrumentation of the Vaughan Williams and Chausson pieces. Its gentle sensuousness was a fitting conclusion to an evening of fine, and refined, music-making – an evening which, in the light of ‘events’, will, I guess, be my last experience of live music for some time.