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A Sunday of Chamber Music and Song in London

Endymion at Blackheath Halls
Sunday Coffee Series
27th January 2008, 11am

Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op.96
Ligeti - Trio for horn, violin and piano, 'Hommage a Brahms'
Brahms - Horn Trio in E flat major, Op.40

Krysia Osostowicz - violin, Stephen Stirling - horn, Michael Dussek - piano

Endymion was the Resident Ensemble at Blackheath Halls for some years in the '80s, soon after it re-opened, and we have reviewed them in The Guide Magazine, Seen & Heard and Musical Pointers regularly since then, in recital and on CD with a notable series of British composers [e.g. click on links: http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/liveevents/endymion_rubbrabowenelgar.html


It was gratifying to have a full hall for this challenging programme of theirs, with Ligeti's extraodinary horn trio the centre piece. The audience was certainly helped by Stephen Stirling's encouraging introduction; in the interval one of the 'regulars' told be that though he wouldn't be singing it in the bath, he would be interested to hear it again.

Ligeti wrote his trio as if for a natural horn, Stirling demonstrating how some notes sound 'out of tune' to our ears; he used a valve horn because it would be impractical to change crooks quickly enough on a natural horn). Ligeti deploys an astonishing range of dynamics, timbres and combinations, drawing on influences including Balkan "limping music", and it all ends very quietly after a powerful Lament - at Blackheath's Recital Room accompanied by sounds of a babbling brook from the central heating system! The players (and I) were unfazed, but at the end of the concert an audience member stood to suggest that others should write in and complain about that long standing nuisance.

Beethoven's last violin sonata was an unusual starter, and Krysia Osostowicz with Michael Dussek didn't really get into their stride until the slow third movement; they had played too unvaryingly loud for the Room at first, even as heard from the back.* The Brahms trio was however a joyous experience, a real 'event' when heard live which cannot be conveyed through microphones and loud speakers.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Might the Halls consider having the Sundays down in the Main Hall more often, if that is not precluded by heating costs? It was notably successful for Carrol & Hewitt last May:

- - a special occasion for Blackheath Sundays in two respects. Carroll, with prescience of forethought, had the venue moved downstairs to the floor of the Great Hall, which had been occasionally used with notable success in the past*. The tones of his fine cello and the Steinway blossomed, and with a more informal semi-circular layout - sideways on in the length of the hall - (with more legroom than upstairs) the audience was generally pleased by the change.- -

and would certainly better suit Nikolai Demidenko, a "big pianist", in a fortnight? [editor]

Song Circle From The Royal Academy Of Music; Wigmore Hall, 4 p.m.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn settings by Brahms, Humperdinck, Loewe, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Reichardt, Silcher, Strauss, Zemlinsky, and folksong
Hei Mi Lee (soprano)
Kate Symonds Joy (mezzo-soprano)
Gerard Collett (baritone)
George Humphreys (baritone)
David Butt Philip (baritone)
Simon Lane (piano)

Serena Fenwick joined us for this event, which may in due course find its way into the RAM series of thematic Song Circle CDs*. Bringing together the many composers who had drawn upon Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a good idea, but it has to be said that without the dominating presence of Mahler, it would have been a rather thin hour of song. Many of his settings from that treasure trove are well known and the military songs brought a note of gravitas into the proceedings. The duet Verlorne Muh, new to me, was a veritable operatic scena.

With Christopher Maltman’s recital to follow in the evening (see below), this was certainly a baritones' Sunday at the Wigmore Hall with three Royal Academy baritones displaying three very different vocal instruments.

David Butt Philip has a voice of rare clarity which is absolutely secure to the highest point of the baritone register.  Two duets and one solo gave just a brief sampling of his quality – I would have liked more.

Gerard Collett (the twin brother of Ronan who is already well embarked on his vocal career) shows an interpretive maturity well beyond his years and beautifully demonstrated in his completely different approaches to Brahms’ deceptively simple Cradlesong and Loewe’s complex ballad Herr Oluf.

George Humphrys is a bass baritone with all the chocolaty warmth of those deep tones and a controlled elegance of phrasing. 

Mezzo Kate Symonds-Joy is another singer of promise.  The songs she was allotted provided ample demonstration of her skill in imitating a naughty child, but I wished she had been given a chance to show a more serious aspect...

Hei Mi Lee both opened and closed the recital.  She is a competent enough soprano, but failed to shine on this occasion, nor did her bright voice blend well with Kate Symonds-Joy’s in duet.

Simon Lane was a tower of supportive strength throughout.


*RAM Song Circle CDs include “Songs of Spring” 2004 and “Songs of Seduction” 2006, both available from Academy Chimes Music [Editor]

Poulenc, Britten and Shostakovich Songs

Poulenc: Toreador; Main dominee par le coeur; Rosemonde; Paul et Virginie; Dernier poeme; Le travail du peintre; Chansons gaillardes
Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake Op 74; The Salley Gardens; The Ploughboy
Shostakovich: Four Poems of Captain Lebyadkin Op 146

Christopher Maltman - baritone Malcolm Martineau – piano

Wigmore Hall,27 January 2008

What singles Christopher Maltman out from other recitalists is his obvious enthusiasm and delight in communicating. There is an infectiously bright timbre to his voice which commands immediate attention, and his diction, no matter what language he is singing in, is crystal clear – an intrinsic factor when it comes to the songs of Francis Poulenc, whose appeal depends on quick-witted rapid word play. Blink (or mumble one word) and your audience will miss the entire point !

The Wigmore Hall has announced that their 2008 programme will cover Poulenc’s song output in its entirety, for the first time ever in a single London season.  Simon Keenlyside launched that enterprise and this evening provided a second tranche.  

Fairly predictably, proceedings opened with settings of words by Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard and Guillaume Apollinaire, three poets which lie at the core of Poulenc’s work, represented by songs which had been well chosen to contrast their styles.    The “set” then moved to less familiar ground with the completely charming Paul et Virginie, with words by Raymond Radiguet and ended with the straight forward sincerity of Robert Desnos poem “I have dreamt of you so”.

The songs that make up Poulenc’s cycle entitled Le travail du peintre are amongst his most frequently performed.   The words are descriptive of the artworks, but I have always had a suspicion that the music is as much a sound portrait of the painters themselves.  The difficulty for the singer is to present each song with a recognisably different persona, and I don’t think I have ever heard that done convincingly.  The Chansons gaillardes flip moods more easily.  Maltman presented them with a bit of a swagger – the Bacchic verses became a splendid bit of nonsense, and he carried off the slightly riské humour with an insouciance perfectly suited to his audience.

Two more 20th century composers were included in the programme, and indeed may well have been the principal draw for some sectors of the audience.

Songs and Proverbs are the product of a perfect match between the dark mysticism of the visionary William Blake and the even darker spiritual outlook of Benjamin Britten.  Here Maltman and Martineau were firmly in their element, weighting the proverbs with deep solemnity to reveal “Eternity in an hour”.

For me, and I think for the performers, the highlight of the evening was Shostakovich’s short cycle entitled Four poems of Captain Lebyadkin.   Maltman introduced them in some detail, telling us that this was only the second time they had performed them and that they were really growing on them.  They reflect Soviet humour of the 1970s with a forced joviality that both denounces and feigns indifference to the ills of the world. In the last song the piano accompaniment to the verses is written for left hand alone. This was a performance bursting with spontaneity and enthusiasm, communicating directly to the audience and both men clearly delighted in the challenge. 

For encores a couple of Britten’s folk song arrangements brought the evening to a cheerful conclusion, with a contended humming of “Salley Gardens” clearly audible among the departing audience.

Serena Fenwick

Another opinion:

Britten Songs and Proverbs of William Blake Op. 74
Poulenc Toréador; Main dominée par le coeur; Rosemonde; Paul et Virginie; Dernier poème;
Le travail du peintre: (Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miro & Villon)
Chansons gaillardes: La maîtresse volage; Chanson à boire; Madrigal; Invocation aux Parques; Couplets bachiques; Sérénade; L'offrande; La belle jeunesse
Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin Op. 146

Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano): Wigmore Hall 7:30 p.m.

Since becoming the Cardiff Lieder Singer of the World in 1997 (Edward Seckerson thought he should have taken away the main prize too - The Independent, June 1997) Christopher Maltman has grown in range and confidence in opera and song, so this recital was predictably sold out, despite a programme with no familiar favourites before a couple of Britten arrangements as encores. For us the darkest of Britten's song cycles (heard originally with Fischer Dieskau and the composer) was the main attraction and made a powerful impression.

Poulenc's songs are gaining steadily in popularity at Wigmore Hall and we heard two groups covering a wide range of poets, albeit with some unevennesess in the settings, but none in the assured performances with notably close ensemble between the artists. One of us is a visual artist and we were not convinced that The Work of the Painter made a significant contiribution to the understanding of the great painters to whom Paul Eluard was paying tribute. The audience tittered at the not very funny 'smutty suggestiveness' of the 17th-century texts of the Chansons gaillardes.

Maltman & his audience too relished the deliberate banality of Shostakovich's late satirical ésprit, mocking Russia of old and the Soviet regime which could do him little further harm towards the end of his life - 'it must be difficult for a great composer to write bad music' (Gerald Larner) and I would hope Shostakovich's Captain Lebyadkin Verses do not become regular features of the singer's growing repertoire.

I was reminded that in 1999 Christopher Maltman had captivated an Edinburgh Festival audience with Eisler's The Hollywood Songbook (1942-43)* which I had not then previously encountered and was still new to Christopher Maltman, who sang all 42 songs by memory, a remarkable feat. He told me afterwards that there was no possibility of his recording them, because a recording existed already; now Maltmann is surely in a position to dictate his repertoire, and I hope he will be minded to revive that fine cycle in Wigmore Hall and for his record label?

Peter Grahame Woolf

*Note: I am currently reading an absolutely indispensable newly published book about music, the music profession and business, Frederic Rzewski's collected writings Nonsequiturs (MusikTexte), and finding relevances daily. His essay on Hans Eisler Today (pp 222-231) is apposite in the present context.