Classical Song recitals London

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The Independent Culture
One person's description of a voice may be unrecognisable to another. Still, it seems fair to describe Sarah Leonard's soprano as small, though it projected quite adequately in the Purcell Room on Wednesday. The grain, or texture, is soft, with a silvery bloom, and she didn't have the edge, or punch necessary for "Let the Florid Music Praise!", the opening song of Britten's Auden cycle, On This Island. The lower register of "Nocturne", the fourth song, suited her, and the chest voice on the line "Or revolting succubus" was effective. This was a rare example of colouring, for she didn't do much in that way with Frank Bridge's three songs to poems by Rabindranath Tagore - she left it to Andrew Ball, playing the sumptuously Bergian piano part.

Giles Swayne's Goodnight Sweet Ladies, given its first performance, offered a preview of his opera in progress, based on Hamlet. The first three songs, Ophelia's mad songs, made rather a meal of every point in the lyrics and became tedious, until the fourth setting - a kind of tombeau, with Latin words by Cipriano de Rore - relieved the histrionics and settled in a more tonal style, with a skilfully written, if rather Messiaenic piano part.

Leonard certainly "lived" Ophelia's dementia effectively, but it was a mistake to put on a girlish voice in Richard Rodney Bennett's A Garland for Marjory Fleming -it seemed condescending, and compromised the sincerity of the poems, written by an eight-year-old girl who died shortly after writing them.

In Salvatore Sciarrino's arrangements of American popular songs, including "You Are My Lucky Star", "Star Dust" and "Night and Day", the element of condescension was all on the part of Sciarrino and his deconstructionist accompaniments. Leonard sang the tunes quite straight, in an unpretentious musical comedy manner, while poor Andrew Ball had to cope with the tedious contrivances at the keyboard. The most enjoyable thing in the programme was She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep, Elisabeth Lutyens's setting of a poem by Robert Graves, in which a very wide-ranging, shapely vocal line moves between wordless vocalise and text, as if between sleep and waking.

The black American, Gordon Hawkins, sang mainly American songs at St John's, Smith Square, the following night. He was described as a baritone, but his commanding, resonant voice is weighty, like a bass's, and his highest notes are powerful, too. He's sung both Jake and Porgy in Porgy and Bess at Covent Garden, and taken the Speaker's part in Die Zauberflote, which gives you the picture. Unfortunately, he chose dull music by second- rate composers, excepting five of Vaughan Williams's Songs of Travel, Samuel Barber's Sure On This Shining Night and A Green Lowland of Pianos (setting an oddly surreal text as a lopsided barcarolle) and some of Copland's Old American Songs. Hawkins's words weren't very clear, mainly because of mushy consonants. His pianist, Charles Spencer, had a lot of notes to play and was polished and fluent, but the recital was dull.

ADRIAN JACK

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