Review of LNT143: Women's Voices
Claire Seymour, Opera Today
The voices of six women composers are celebrated by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and soprano Yunah Lee on this characteristically ambitious and valuable release by Lontano Records Ltd (Lorelt).
The label was founded in 1992 by composer and conductor Odaline de la Martinez. When she’s not bringing rarely heard repertoire to light as a conductor of groups such as the Lontano Ensemble and Berkeley Ensemble, de la Martinez is seeking out work neglected by the major record labels to record and promote, focusing on three main areas: 20th- and 21st-century composers, Latin American classical music and women composers of all periods.
All but one of the six composers on this disc were born in the few years following the Second World War. The exception is Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), whose Four Shakespeare Songs were first performed by soprano Noelle Barker and pianist Wilfrid Parry in 1965. Often sung by tenors - shortly after the first performance tenor Peter Birts performed them at Cambridge University Music School accompanied by Giles Swayne; and in Maconchy’s centenary year, Philip Langridge performed them at the BBC Proms in Cadogan Hall - for this first recording, Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams is the soloist.
‘Come away, death’ was in fact composed in 1956 and sets a song from Twelfth Night which Duke Orsino requests from the Fool, Feste, to fuel the misery of his unrequited love. I feel that Williams makes rather heavy weather of this faux lament in which Feste mocks his master’s self-indulgent melancholy. The setting is for the most part syllabic, the false relations do convey the instability of the human heart, and there are some pounding piano pedals which threaten to drag the lovelorn heart down to the abyss; but, surely there should be a sense of wry derision - as when the rising phrases, ‘My part of death’ and ‘My poor corpse’, climb to their over-emotive peaks, or when the paired notes setting ‘lover’ and true’ sigh and droop. The acoustic is resonant which adds to the hyperbolic dramatization. Williams takes great care over the enunciation of the text, perhaps a little too much so: why does “never find my grave”, which rhymes with “A thousand thousand sighs to save”, become “gr-ar-ve”?
If ‘Come away, death’ needs either ‘more’ or ‘less’, then ‘Take, O take those lips away’ - the brief song which a young boy sings to Marianna (in Measure for Measure) as she languishes in isolation and despair, a victim of Angelo’s callousness and hypocrisy - is more fittingly sombre and affecting. Pianist Paula Fan exploits the repetitive motifs to create a sense of anguished emotional stagnation and Huw Williams crafts the speech-like vocal line painstakingly, moving from a crooning head voice to a black lower register with smooth facility, though the wavering quiver which inflects the vocal melody tends to over-emote at times. A cavalier swagger colours the brief ‘King Stephen’, the drinking song with which Iago lures Rodrigo to disgrace; the lucidity of the piano accompaniment - high, sparse, riddled with nervy acciaccaturas - adds significantly to the discomfort such as might be experienced by a watching audience as Cassio carelessly throws away his reputation. Best of all is ‘The wind and the rain’ which would make for a jittery and aptly bittersweet end to Twelfth Night, with its spiky motor rhythms in the sparse accompaniment, and angular, repetitive vocal line.
As if to emphasise Maconchy’s ‘elder stateswoman’ status, her Shakespeare settings are followed by The Swan by her daughter, Nicola LeFanu (b.1947). This scena for baritone was written for Williams and first performed in June 2017 at the Lower Machen Festival, accompanied by Fan. It sets a medieval text - alternating English (as translated by Fleur Adcock) and Latin: the lament of a migrating swan as it faces the dangers and loneliness of a solo ocean crossing (a metaphor for the soul’s journey which LeFanu likens to the experience of all migrants seeking a safe refuge today).
It begins with a blood-curdling chord cluster, from which motifs and colours gradually find form, above which Williams introduces the narrative with a spoken line, “Hear me, my children, telling the lamentation of the winged swan who journeyed across the ocean.” Warm vocal lyricism makes the tale a compelling one and it is predominantly the piano that communicates the obstacles and anxieties which the swan must overcome. Williams persuasively negotiates the chasm between fragile and tender spoken English and rhetorically demonstrative Latin. The intensity is unwavering and the performers sustain the emotional and circumstantial drama: only with the blazing glow of Orion - which roars, rolls and resonates through the piano - does hope of a haven arrive, and a fresh purposeful enters the vocal line. There is freshness with the spoken declaration, “Now he exulted feeling himself flung amid the stars in their high familiar constellations”, and thenceforth light and vigour are more dominant, building towards the thrilling, unaccompanied melismatic conclusion, “Praise and glory to the great King … Regi magno sit Gloria.”
Hilary Tann’s Melangell Variations was also written for Jeremy Huw Williams (a co-commission with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra). Welsh-born Tann (b.1947) now lives in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in New York but it was the Shrine Church of Saint Melangell, at Pennant Melangell in the Berwyn Mountains of her native Wales that inspired the work: during a visit she purchased The Hare That Hides Within, a set of poems about St Melangell and was drawn to a set of six poems by the former Welsh poet laureate, Gwyneth Lewis. The Melangell Variations sets three of these poems, outlining the ancient history of a female hermit who sheltered a hare in her robes to save it from the hunters’ hounds. The oscillating quivers of a string quartet evoke the hare’s trembling heart and limbs, above which Williams’ firm baritone opens ‘The Story’, as told by one of the hunting party. When soprano Yunah Lee enters, her pure, shining “Veni Sancti Spiritus” seems both to well from the rescuing angel and from more celestial seraphs. Eventually the guardian’s voice winds in unaccompanied modal counterpoint with Williams’ observations, bringing predator and protector together in an uneasy, immobile truce - from which tension soon springs, culminating in a sustained ululating appeal of enormous vitality and passion, “Melangell, teach me, the hunter you coursed and caught, where to turn.”
“Breathe in”, “Breathe out” implores Lee in ‘The Silence’, and as Williams evocatively describes the suspended world - “The sea sighs as she holds quite still”, “Words fall in a drop from a thorn” - a dry pizzicato ostinato holds the collective breath, the strings occasionally relaxing into brief melodic upswells. ‘A Cloud of Witnesses’ raises the emotional temperature of all the contending voices: Tann has created a musical canvas of tremendous mythic power and human expansiveness, and it receives an invigorating, exhilarating performance here.
Eleanor Alberga (b.1949) grew up in Jamaica, later winning a scholarship to study piano and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The Soul’s Expression weaves together poems by George Eliot, Emily Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, bound by an intervening quotation from Adam Bede, “Let evil words die as soon as they’re spoken.” Williams, who gave the premiere of the work in 2017, appreciates the melodic lyricism and paints the poetic imagery tenderly, sensitively and with strongly defined colours. Fan complements the vocal line with delicacy, eloquence and with drama, particularly in the changeful interludes between the poems. The setting of George Eliot’s ‘Roses’ receives an especially fresh and verdant rendition.
The Girl by The Ocean by Barbara Jazwinski (b.1950) was composed in 2015 and is dedicated to Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan. It sets texts by the composer’s daughter, Maria Jazwinski. Fan evocatively depicts the glistening of sunset-beam spray, dancing ocean droplets and winking starlight in the long piano prelude, while Williams’ baritone is first sensuous then energized, as the poet-speaker is jolted from introspective reflection by the girl’s “vivid and wild, dancing in the wind.” The vitality sinks once again into sleepy dreams which then become surreal fantasies and finally awaken into the safety of morning. This is a lovely composition which powerfully captures the spirit of the poetry the personality of the elusive but bewitching protagonist, and which is performed with musical intelligence and sensitivity.
Also commissioned by Williams, to mark the centenary of Dylan Thomas, If I touched the earth by Cecilia McDowall (b.1951) is the final female voice we hear, and it is and urgent and animated one. ‘Clown in the moon’ juxtaposes dreaminess and passion; it is melancholy, sometimes dark, but not despairing. ‘Being but men’ contrasts the reckless freedom of youth with the tentativeness which experience lends to adulthood: in this performance, there’s a thread of restlessness which cannot be quelled. Williams is forthright and confident in the final song, ‘Here in this spring’, which celebrates the natural world with blithe buoyancy and brightness.
In a 1987 essay, Master Musician: an Impregnable Taboo?, Nicola LeFanu asked, ‘If we continue to have a musical culture which draws on the creative talents of one sex, what kind of a musical perspective will we have?’ This disc confirms the uplifting breadth of vision and voice that openness, inclusivity and freedom can bring.