Nadine Benjamin and Jan Karl Rautio make perfect musical partners at the Thaxted Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Thaxted Festival 2024 [1] – Liszt, Hall, Verdi, Puccini: Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Jan Karl Rautio (piano). Thaxted Parish Church, Essex, 22.6.2024. (CC)

Nadine Benjamin and Jan Karl Rautio after their recital at Thaxted © Bertille Cascio

LisztEnfant, j’étais roi, S 283; Oh, quand je dors. S 282
George HallSettings of d’Annunzio: L’ora e tarda; O falce di Lunacalante
VerdiIn solitaria stanza; Chi i bei m’adduce ancora; Stornello; Waltz in F
Puccini – Extracts from La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Gianni Schicchi

It is good to be returning to Thaxted Festival for a sequence of vocal and operatic treats spread over several weekends, starting with this exquisite recital by Nadine Benjamin and the superb pianist Jan Karl Rautio.

My first experience of soprano Nadine Benjamin was as Ermyntrude in the UK premiere of Mascagni’s Isabeau at Opera Holland Park (review here): at the time, I wrote that on ‘the strength of the beauty of her voice this evening [she] has a fine career ahead’.

So it would seem. She was a real leading light as ‘The Mother’ in Tesori’s Blue at English National Opera, where I found that ‘Benjamin … really provided the lifeblood of the performance … Benjamin’s voice has it all: range (lovely lower register, really strong, power up top), expressivity and nuance’. It was her performance as Mimì in ENO’s Bohème in 2022 that is most relevant to this Thaxted Festival – and her Mimi back then was notably powerful.

But first, songs. The real draw for me in this programme was two Liszt songs. For some reason this aspect of Liszt’s output is woefully under-recognised, so it was great to see Benjamin including these. Written while Liszt was based in Paris (and in contact with Victor Hugo, the chosen poet), the two songs here both feature a pining for an unobtainable other. First, Enfant, j’étais roi, a work-out for both vocalist and pianist. The song is only short but encompasses a wide range of emotional plateaux (including some nice virtuoso writing for piano, with thunderous bass split octaves). Benjamin and Rautio were in complete command, Benjamin’s voice not only strong but also full. The complementary song was Oh, quand je dors, opening with another echt-Lisztian trope – high, almost seraphic lines and chords – before a heavenly melody unfolds. That melody was spun like gold by Benjamin, whose legato was excellent throughout, but particularly entrancing towards the song’s radiant close.

Two songs by George Hall followed (not as advertised, two songs by Tosti; they were, however, to texts that Tosti had set in 1887 and1911). We actually heard two of Hall’s Three Poems of Gabriele D’Annunzio (2020), music of great imagination, and certainly more advanced harmonically than Tosti. Hall’s music is sophisticated, and beautiful but not indulgent: Banjamin and Rautio performed it as if they had known the score for decades. A lovely surprise.

As in the case of Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi’s songs are massively overshadowed by his operas. And yet both composers’ songs contain gems. We heard three of Verdi’s along with the composer’s slip of a Waltz for piano (which appeared reprogrammed in a different place than advertised). The third of six Romanze, ‘In solitaria stanza’ itself has waltz-like characteristics implied via triples in a 4/4-time signature, As one might expect with this composer, there are beautiful melodic inflections (and a real kinship with ‘Tacea la notte’ from his Il trovatore). Again, Benjamin’s legato was the primary factor in the performance’s success; but Rautio’s way of doubling the vocal melody was most affecting, too, nicely subtle. The slower ‘Chi i bei m’adduce ancora’ the text an Italian translation of Goethe’s Erster Verlust (First Loss) brought notably secure tuning from Benjamin in the tricky slow descents. The song Stornello (Tu dici che non m’ami’). although written in the wake of the death of Verdi’s collaborator Piave, is jaunty (‘All day and night I play and sing’ is the final line); it was part of a collection published for Piave’s family’s benefit. In theory a great way to (almost) finish the first half; it was actually followed by Verdi’s slip of a Waltz in F major, teasingly, pleasingly played by Rautio.

In the spirit of the unexpected, we also had an extra aria: Leonore’s ‘Vanne, lasciami … D’amor sull’ali rosee’ from the fourth act of Trovatore.  Good to include the accompanied recitative, beautifully delivered here with crystal diction by Benjamin; but it is the purity of her vocal line that is most impressive.

Over to Puccini opera for the second half, each excerpt beautifully prepared via a spoken introduction from Benjamin. She shaped Mimì’s ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ (Bohème) to perfection, and offered a prolongation of interiorisation in the third act, ‘Donde lieta usci’, the music now imbued with sadness, the line ‘Addio, senza rancor!’ truly heartbreaking.

Benjamin acted the Butterfly excerpts wonderfully, both in physical gesture and in her voice. All credit to Rautio, who is like a master colourist when it comes to orchestral reductions on the piano; the combination of the two artists led to a memorable ‘Un bel dì’. And particularly with ‘Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!’, one got a real sense not only of the identity of the aria, but of the overall atmosphere of the opera; notably different from those around it. An all-Puccini second half, for sure, but a massively variegated one.

Manoi Lescaut next (in spite of the programme’s insistence it was to be Tosca, which followed). It is fascinating to hear the Intermezzi on piano, and, I repeat, Rautio is an absolute master of colour; using the pedal in the Tosca Act III Intermezzo (that line with unison horns) resulted in something of a carillon. From Manon Lescaut, a powerful third act Intermezzo. The two arias following were ‘In quelle trine morbide’ from Manon Lescaut (delicate piano against Benjamin’s long lines) and, from Tosca, the miracle that is ‘Visse d’arte’, beautifully sustained and absolutely hypnotic.

A final number: Musetta’s waltz (‘Quando m’en vo’), which in a nod to Benjamin’s ENO activities was sung in English. Benjamin has something of a cheeky demeanour to her; as does Musetta. A match made in heaven, therefore, and we certainly believed Benjamin, when she sang ‘I love it’. Fabulous – as was the entire evening. Nadine Benjamin and Jan Karl Rautio make perfect musical partners.

Colin Clarke

Featured Image: Nadine Benjamin

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