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Hafez, Goethe and the West-Eastern Divan

Songs by Schubert, Schumann, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Szymanowski & Wolf inspired by the poetry of Hafez & Goethe.
Jennifer France  soprano, Benjamin Appl baritone, Stuart Jackson tenor; arranged by Sanaz Sotoudeh piano, with Richard Wigmore presenter.

Recital Room Blackheath Halls 15th June 2012

Hafez was a fourteenth-century Persian poet who is still read and respected throughout the Farsi-speaking regions of Iran and Afghanistan. His collections of poems on the intoxications of love and liquor are known by the title “Divan".

Goethe is for German-speakers what Shakespeare is for us - their pre-eminent poet and playwright. He read the poems of Hafez in German translation and, between 1814 and 1819, was inspired to write no less than twelve books of poems under the collective title “West-Eastern Divan". These seek to illustrate for Western readers the themes and sensibilities of Eastern literature and to stimulating the exchange of ideas between Orient and Occident.

The Persian born pianist, Sanaz Sotoudeh's fascinating programme brought these poems and the songs which they inspired together. For this annual Summer Concert she was joined by three brilliant young singers: Jennifer France (soprano) who had her prize-winner’s recital at Wigmore Hall on 28th May; Stuart Jackson (tenor) who won second prize in the 2011 Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition; and Benjamin Appl (baritone), who gave an outstanding performance of Schubert's Winterreise at the Halls in April.

To guide the audience of The Friends of Blackheath Halls Summer Concert on their journey from 14th century Persia to 19th century Europe Sanaz had enlisted the help of the distinguished music writer, broadcaster and lecturer, Richard Wigmore, whose illuminating introductions greatly enhanced each set of songs, holding our attention with his knowledge and wit.

An enthusiastic audience filled the Recital Room and enjoyed a concert which would have graced the stage of any Austrian Schubertiade. To prove the point, we learnt that Richard Wigmore was off to one such gathering at Schwarzenberg the next day to give talks on Schubert songs.

The concert began a selection of classic settings of Goethe by the youthful Schubert, shared between soprano and baritone, including a lovesick Gretchen at her spinning wheel and a spell-binding Erlkönig; next Stuart Jackson’s tender tenor voice brought us Hafez’s own words in 5 sparkling settings by the Polish composer Szymanowski. Hafez writes much about unhappy love and as one commentator put it these "songs shimmer with the hues of subtle, glimmering colours.” 

Poems from Goethe’s ‘Book of the Cupbearer’ directly inspired by Hafez, followed, sung with seductive allure by Ben Appl. Next, Jennifer France opened Goethe’s ‘Book of Suleika’ with a ravishing account of two of Schubert’s loveliest songs, Suleika I and II, Sanaz Sotoudeh at the keyboard making light of the fiendishly difficult piano parts. Her playing throughout was sensitive to the extraordinary range of emotions of these works, combining confidence and astute pianism.

Hugo Wolf’s songs from the ‘Book of Suleika’ followed, in which Goethe’s alter ego Hatem exchanges passionate love notes with his beloved Suleika; the same collection provided the final two lieder, one each by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Stuart joining Jennifer in a charming duet to round off the evening.
Congratulations are due to all five participants.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music and word in the best tradition of the many wonderful song recitals we have heard at the Halls over the past 20 years.

Tom Butler