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London Song Festival
Rosslyn Hill Chapel,  London NW3

A warm welcome to the newly established London Song Festival, based in the pleasant surroundings of Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, with fine acoustics. 

Nigel Foster (pictured) is Musical Director and pianist throughout all four evenings of concerts – a marathon task in itself – but having now had the pleasure of hearing two of them, I am equally impressed by his ability to put together programmes of real variety and interest, and at the same time match items to the individual strengths of his singers. 

Music from and inspired by Greece - 6 October 2007
Katherine Broderick – soprano
Alexandra Gravas – mezzo soprano
Robin Tritschler – tenor
Grant Doyle – baritone
Nigel Foster – piano

Schubert: Ganymed; Dithyrambe; Die Gotter Griechenlands; Prometheus
Brahms:  An eine Aolsharfe
Wolf:  Anakreons Grab
Warlock:  Heracleitus
Brown:  With No Icons
Coates:  Orpheus with his Lute
Constantinidis:  Songs of Expectation
Caravassilis:  Candles In The Same Space (New Commission)
Bush:  Greek Love Songs
Debussy:  Chansons de Bilitis
Strauss:  Fruhlingsfeier

The line up for first concert included two of the finalists from the recent Wigmore International Song Competition www.musicalpointers.co.uk/competitions/WigmSongComp2007.htmlRobin Tritschler once again demonstrated his gift for phrasing – superb in Die Gotter Griechlands, deliberately understating the final repeats, and in an achingly beautiful Heracleitus.  Katherine Broderick, just recovering from a bout of ‘flu could be excused the slightest of catches in her voice in the opening Ganymed but she was singing out with her usual bright facility in Fruhlingsfeier.

Together these two singers performed the evening’s specially commissioned work, Constantine Caravassillis’ Candles in The Same Space  which combines two poems by Constantine Cavafy (Candles, 1899 and In the Same Space, 1929) in a virtuoso duet which shifts rapidly through a stylistic kaleidoscope blending everything from baroque counterpoint to tango.  

Grant Doyle has a polished deep baritone shown off to good effect in Geoffrey Bush’s very rarely heard cycle of Greek Love Songs.

I had not previously come across the Greek soprano Alexandra Gravas and it was through her researches in the EPT archives in Athens that Yiannis Constantinidis beautiful cycle Songs of Expectation  was rescued from obscurity.  The work is clearly close to her heart and she sang the five songs with expressive charm.    She has a distinctive quality of voice well suited to Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis capturing the quixotic mood of the nymphs and satyrs in their enchanted landscape.

Songs from and inspired by Spain - 9 October 2007
Ilona Domnich – soprano
Sara Gonzalez-Saavedra – mezzo soprano
Roderick Williams – baritone
Nigel Foster – piano

de Falla: Five songs from “Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas”
Shostakovich:  Three songs from “Six Spanish Songs Op100”
Poulenc:  Toreador
Turina:  El Fantasma; La Giralda
Ravel:  Don Quichotte a Dulcinee
Ivanova:  Sea – The Soul of Spain (New Commission)
Schumann:  Der Hidalgo
Wolf:  Auf dem Grunen Balkon
Delibes:  Les Filles de Cadix
Hughes:  The Spanish Lady
Walton:  Through Gilded Trellises
Vaughan Williams:  The Spanish Ladies

Sara Gonzales-Saavedra is a singer whose earthy mezzo seems to have gained new ground each time I hear her.  De Falla’s Canciones Populares Espanolas  could easily be forecast to fit her like a glove, and she produced a small tour de force with Poulenc’sToreador cathching the ambivalence of its shifting moods and exploiting all the dramatic possibilities of Cocteau’s words. 

Roderick Williams was sandwiching this concert between his appearances as Papageno for ENO.  It’s his chameleon like ability to inhabit the character of the song that he is singing that makes him so effective on the concert platform.  In Shostakovich’s Little Stars just a tweak of his bow tie transformed him into the rakish music teacher; his Hidalgo was a model urbane suavity, and in the Don Quichotte cycle he mirrored all the emotions of the gallant knight.

Ilona Domnich was clearly already a favourite of local audiences with her bell like soprano.  Les Filles de Cadix showed off all the glitter at the top of her voice, and she did equally well with the specially commissioned and rather intense cycle Sea: The Soul of Spain,  but rather more care was needed with diction to bring off Walton’s Edith Sitwell song.

Music from and inspired by Italy - 13 October 2007
Karin Thyselius – soprano
Doreen Curran – mezzo soprano
Nicky Spence – tenor
Richard Latham – baritone
Nigel Foster – piano

Bellini: Vaga luna, che inargenti
Verdi:  In Solitaria Stanza; Lo Spazzacamino
Rossni:  La Danza; La Passegiata; La Regata Veneziana
Tosti:  Venetian Song
Hahn:  La Barcheta from “Venezia”
Schumann:  Venezianisches Lied I
Marx:  Venezianisches Wiegenlied
Head:  Rain Storm from “Three Songs of Venice”
Cilluffo:  Death in Florence (New Commission)
Duparc:  Serenade Florentine
Ireland:  Santa Chiara
Warlock:  A Prayer to St Anthony of Padua
Argento:  Casa Guidi
Coward:  A Bar on the Piccola Marina
Denza:  Funiculi, Funicula

The third evening of music, no less skilfully themed and chaptered, transported the audience to the sunny climes of Italy, and included several songs that are amongst my personal favourites.

Soprano Karin Thyseliusi, appearing as a much acclaimed Berta in (Il barbiere di Siviglia) in Scottish Opera’s tour, demonstrated her facility for comedy in A Bar on the Piccola Marina, and with Verdi’s Lo Spazzacamino she showed off an impressively flexible coloratura. 

Nicky Spence, “The Scottish Tenor” was hampered by head cold, but he is a born performer who communicates engagingly with his audience.  His voice has filled out since I last heard him, and I was greatly impressed with his thoughtful musicianship.  Duparc’s Florentine serenade and Ireland’s Because it is the ay of Palms were both beautifully judged and of course he was in his element leading the final Funiculi, Funicula.

More Scottish connections apply to Richard Latham who is just embarking on the Opera Course at RSAMD.  This very personable young baritone gave an unashamedly Italianate rendering of Vaga luna and also showed well in Peter Warlock’s short prayer to the saint of lost property. 

Some of the best of the music was accorded to the mezzo Doreen Curran.   Not only did she get to sing one of Michael Head’s lovely songs from his Venetian triptych (written for Dame Janet Baker, but alas now sadly neglected), but she was also accorded the evening’s New Commission, perhaps the most extraordinary new work heard at the Festival.   Exploring and contrasting three different deaths in musical terms is perhaps not something that many composers would embark on, but  Francesco Ciluffo has done just that, in what proved to be a very power cycle of three songs.  Beginning with the death of a 20th century serial killer “il Mostro di Firenze” - disjointed and violent – through the pardoning entreaties of the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the work culminates with the desperate anguish of Savonarola, tortured and burnt to death as a condemned heretic.    It was good to see the composer receive his applause on the platform.

Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch - 16 October 2007
Martene Grimson soprano
Jeremy Huw Williams baritone
Nigel Foster piano

The fourth concert was devoted to one of the most complex and varied of all song cycles, over an hour of singing, with a series of songs mirroring all of love's joys and pain, and even a few of its frustrations. The two singers had the measure of the dramatic and conversational style of this work, responding to the words with their actions as well as the colour of the voice. The piano acts as a go-between, with some particularly lovely postludes all rendered in careful detail by Nigel Foster, who throughout the evenings had accompanied with sensitive skill, supporting the singers and bringing to life the temperament of each song. It would be churlish to quibble over the interpretation of individual songs when the overall interpretation was so fine, bringing the Festival to a triumphant conclusion.

Serena Fenwick


Photo credit Jack Chevalier