Concert Review

John Steane (illustrated talk on Singers of the Century)
Joan Rodgers (soprano) with Roger Vignoles (piano) Recital of Wolf (Mörike Lieder), Britten and French chansons. Wigmore Hall, London, 15 June 2000.

Following her notable appearance as Melisande at ENO [S&H March 2000] Joan Rodgers included Debussy's three well known songs of Fetes galantes (Book 1) to start the second half of her recital, and she finished the evening with a group of minor chansons by de Severac, Satie and (in Spanish style, letting her hair down just a little) Massenet's Nuit d'Espagne and Chanson espagnole by Delibes. Between those she impressed greatly in Britten's On this island his early settings of Auden from 1937. Let the florid music praise was heroic and she revelled in its extravagant roulades suggested by the overheated images of the first stanza. The cycle, if it is to be considered thus, is uneven in tone and ends with the jerky, jokey As it is, plenty, and does not quite fulfil the expectations aroused by its commencement. But Rodgers and Vignoles gave as persuasive an account of it as I have heard for a long time.

The long sequence of thirteen Hugo Wolf Mörike songs, which comprised the first half, was profoundly satisfying. Joan Rodgers was in fine voice from the first and maintained concentration and close rapport with her responsive pianist at all times. Her manner is slightly cool and formal, at pains not to confuse recital platform with operatic stage, and she does not draw attention to herself away from the poems which she is expressing in music. Her own attention to every suggested nuance encouraged the listener to attentive reading of the texts and translations supplied, these including the Auden poems in English (just as necessary in song recitals - you may be able to catch many of the individual words with some singers, but never the sense as a whole in settings of complex poetry).

Wolf is at his most 'listener friendly' and expansive in the Morike songs and these were selected to encompass a wide range of emotions. By employing the subtlest of musical inflections she was conversational and relaxed walking in the woods with fresh-cut stick, next knowingly observant of a next-day encounter between a boy and his girl whose plaits had last night been 'tousled by a storm', then languorous recalling past, unutterable days lying lazily outdoors Im Fruhling watching the cloud go its way and listening to the humming bee. She evoked the tiny elf who banged his head on a stone, and with a great deal of help from Roger Vignoles, the song of the blustering, roaring wind. To finish, A girl's first love-song, an erotically explicit evocation by the two artists of her fascinated fear of the sweet eel like a snake, twisting and turning, leaping into her hands, slipping from hand to heart, biting its way, o miracle, through her flesh, burrowing blissfully down to become 'the death of me'!

A solo recital of this kind, with instant switches between songs, puts demands upon a singer equal, or greater, than most operatic roles; it is operas which draw the crowds these days. That was not always so. In his well attended pre-concert talk downstairs in the Bechstein Room John Steane, who confessed to being now 'of an age', regaled us with memories of great singers of the distant past (and the present too), with excerpts from the third volume, now completed and soon going to press, of his Singers of the Century (Duckworth - He let us hear the young Elizabeth Schwarzkopf who (together with Fischer-Dieskau) used to regularly fill the Royal Festival Hall for Lieder recitals, and choice recordings of the great Elena Gerhardt, now 'unwanted', the younger Gerard Souzay in his prime, Heddle Nash in his late maturity (a favourite of many present) and Ian Bostridge who 'became' the drop-out young man of Winterreise, admiring both tenors in different ways, and lamenting the paucity of great tenors nowadays. He shared with us his pleasure in Cecilia Bartoli's 'gorgeous contralto register' - though he had three things to suggest she ought to put right, even though her public doesn't seem to mind them! A fascinating read is assured at the end of this year or early next.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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