Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Christine Brewer and Roger Vignoles, 28 August 2007

Queen's Hall

Strauss: Ich liebe dich, Op.37 no.2
Strauss: Breit über mein Haupt, Op.19 no.2
Strauss: Die Georgine, Op.10 no.4
Strauss: Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op.56 no.6
Strauss: Befreit, Op.39 no.4

Wolf: Vier Mignon Lieder

Britten: Cabaret Songs

John Carter: Cantata

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Roger Vignoles (piano)

Christine Brewer is celebrated for her Strauss, and not only in the opera house. Her recent disc with Roger Vignoles for Hyperion has gathered many plaudits. The opening group of songs gave an opportunity to consider further this growing reputation. Her apparently endless reserves of breath ensured that maintaining and shaping long phrases was never a problem and her diction was excellent. Moments of intimacy, however, were fewer than one might have expected; I rather had the impression that Brewer would have been better matched by an orchestra. Moreover, whilst Vignoles accompanied provided adept accompaniment, the piano part also lacked the sense of insights won from a seasoned partnership. This seemed to be almost the stereotypical Lieder-recital -by-an-'opera-singer', albeit one with great command over her awesome vocal reserves. Indeed, I missed the orchestra in 'Die heiligen drei Könige', in which the lengthy postlude sounded rather matter of fact on the piano. Vignoles doubtless had his reasons for not lingering, but the piano part did sound a little too much like the transcription that it is. The violin trills that depict, with such knowing naïveté, the infant Christ's crying either do not transfer very well to the piano or did not do so on this occasion.

But maybe nerves had been at play, for matters improved with Wolf's great Mignon Lieder. All four songs are so beautifully proportioned, for which we must thank both Wolf and Goethe, and these proportions were well served by readings attentive to formal as well as verbal concerns. Brewer seemed to respond more readily to the narrative context of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, enabling Vignoles to follow suit with less generalised accompaniment. Whilst the tendencies present in the Strauss songs had not disappeared completely, a greater readiness to respond to the shifts and turns in Wolf's alchemic blend of words and music exhibited itself as the group progressed, rendering the delectable 'Kennst du das Land' most moving. When Brewer asked, at the opening of the second stanza, 'Kennst du das Haus?' her hushed tone conveyed just the right sense of confiding consolation. Her full vocal strength would then be employed for a well-judged and never-strained climax at the third 'Dahin! Dahin!', before subsiding for the final line, both drawing back and urging Mignon's father on: 'Geht unser Weg! o Vater, lass uns ziehn!'

I felt nevertheless - perhaps surprisingly for a singer so steeped in the vocal works of German Romanticism - that Brewer was much more at ease in the English-language items of the second half. There was no longer any communicative barrier between singer and audience, which may partly have been a product of the audience's comprehension of the texts. She proved a witty, winning 'hostess' in the Britten-Auden Cabaret Songs, which might easily have seemed merely 'clever'. There was not only an impressive dynamic range but a quicksilver flexibility largely absent from the Strauss songs and only intermittently present in the Wolf items. Once again, this seemed also to apply to Vignoles, who must, I imagine, have been taking his cues from the singer.

John Carter's Cantata is a shaping of four Negro spirituals into the shape of a pseudo-Baroque cantata: Prelude/Rondo ('Peter go ring dem bells'), Recitative ('Sometimes I feel like a motherless child'), Air ('Let us break bread together'), and Toccata ('Ride on King Jesus'), although the designations seem somewhat arbitrary. The composer added a busy and ever-so-mildly 'wrong-note' piano part. Brewer, in her brief introduction, admitted to a longstanding devotion to these songs in their original form, having sung them so often at home as a child. She certainly seemed to sing from the heart, and once again communicated vividly, rising to a splendid climax on the held-note at the end of the final 'Toccata'. Vignoles shaped his part considerately yet with requisite vigour when required. It would be difficult to remain unmoved by the circumstances of the piece: Carter is believed dead, perhaps on account of suicide, but nobody knows where the sometime composer-in-residence of the National Symphony Orchestra may be. Nevertheless, my reaction was along the lines of: if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

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