Anna Dennis shows reassuring vocal elegance in music by Bach, Handel and Vaughan Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 2022 [5] – Bach, Elena Langer, Handel, Vaughan Williams: Anna Dennis (soprano), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Richard Gowers (harpsichord). Holywell Music Room, Oxford 21.10.2022. (CR)

Bach – Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen, BWV199; Ruhet hie, matte Töne, BWV210
Elena Langer – Love & Endings
Handel – Oboe Sonata in C minor, HWV366
Vaughan Williams Ten Blake Songs – Infant Joy; The Piper; Eternity
Handel – Süsse stille, sanfte Quelle, HWV205; Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden, HWV210

Accompaniment by the harpsichord grounded this compact, late afternoon recital in the Baroque period, but in the case of the three-song cycle Love & Endings by Elena Langer (given its world premiere here) that was not to create any pastiche but rather to introduce an arresting, brittle sonority. She explained that, whereas she normally wrote comic music, the texts of these three songs are rueful or yearning in the case of the first, ‘The Lover in Winter Plaineth for the Spring’ (setting the famous mediaeval lyric, ‘O Western Wind when wilt thou blow’). The latter was launched with Nicholas Daniel’s onomatopoeically shrieking oboe, ending with hollow blowing through the instrument to continue seamlessly into the list of unpleasant climatic phenomena in ‘The life of this world’. The final song was prefaced with a melancholy, meandering prelude for cor anglais, surely meant to recall the sad pipe song which opens Act III of Tristan und Isolde, before giving way to Richard Gowers’s menacing pounding, and infernal dance rhythms on the harpsichord to accompany Anna Dennis’s beautifully sustained mournful notes, creating a resigned conclusion to the cycle which had elicited crisp alacrity from her in the first two songs. Langer’s pithy settings, somewhat like Britten but more harmonically piquant, held attention for their robust musical style, frequently shifting in texture or expression, but never seeking to make effects for their own sake.

Beginning the recital was a pair of Bach cantata arias, which Dennis executed with reassuring vocal elegance, the sorrow and anxiety of the first becalmed by Daniel’s soothing oboe accompaniment, and the ‘weary notes’ referred to in the second allayed by his dainty obbligato. At the end were two of Handel’s Nine German Arias to texts by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, radiantly sustained by Dennis as the words speak of wonderment at God’s creation, seconded by Daniel and Gowers’s sprightly support. In between came three of Vaughan Williams’s Ten Blake Songs, Dennis’s sympathetic renditions of these beguilingly simple verses aptly supported by Daniel alone (in a nice piece of musical genealogy, they were originally written for his teacher, Janet Craxton).

In the middle of the recital came Handel’s C minor Oboe Sonata, in which Daniel sustained a generally lyrical, vocal tone, the opening Largo continuing the strain of melancholy with which Langer’s Love & Endings had concluded. The intertwined fugal lines of the Allegro were more pertly delivered by him and Gowers to bring out the counterpoint, before melodic sweetness was restored for the remaining two movements.

Curtis Rogers

Leave a Comment