Catriona Morison at Howard Assembly Room 31 January

Catriona Morison sings Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, and Korngold, accompanied by Joseph Middleton at Howard Assembly Room, 31 Jan 2019 – An impressive, very warmly received, and at times transcendent recital of German song

When I read that in 2017 mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison had won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize (as well as joint-winning the Song prize), I knew that this concert was likely to be exceptionally good. I was not prepared, however, for just how exceptionally good it would turn out to be! Morison and Middleton came on stage to a respectful but restrained applause, Middleton in his customary suit, and Morison wearing a lovely, deep blue dress and simple but beautiful earrings, with her dark hair tied back. Something of the pair’s artistic taste was already evident in their appearance.

The duo made the brave choice of leading the programme with eight songs by Brahms. (Not nearly so brave, I thought, as my agreeing to sit through it!) With only five or six songs apiece from the other composers—who are generally thought to be greater song composers—this made Brahms the main feature of the programme. This would be fine for some, but Brahms to me seems like the musical equivalent of a meal which, whilst pleasant, is altogether too heavy.

The first two Brahms songs, however, were (to my surprise) lighter in texture and mood than one generally expects of his style, and seemed closer to Schubert (the finest song composer) in spirit. The first, “Dein Blaues Auge” was composed when Brahms was about forty; the second, “An die Nachtigall”, when he was in his mid-30s. The second of these in particular showed the intelligent and expressive modulations which Brahms often puts into ostensibly simple music. Middleton did a fine job in bringing out the birdsong-like quality in the piano part (the song is addressed to the nightingale), and Morison’s voice showed a charming warmth and clarity, which she sustained throughout the evening. The beautiful ‘ch’ in the final word of the song “entfleuch!” (an entreaty to the nightingale to fly away) sent a chill down many spines in the audience, I am sure.

The remaining six Brahms songs were not quite so engaging, but allowed me to meditate on the wonderful pianism and vocal performance. Morison consistently showed a great dynamic range—and a sensitivity to its uses—and her pronunciation of the German poems was so clear, even I could make them out, which allowed me to appreciate the poems even when it was harder to appreciate the music (as was the case for most of the Brahms). For those without any German, song translations were provided by screens either side of the stage. I still have not decided whether this provision is more an annoying distraction, or a useful tool for comprehension. It is both, but I am unable to make a final judgment. Somehow a performance is more immersive without the screens, even when one might not understand as much.

The second half concluded with a fascinating set of songs by Schumann. One can often expect a Schumann song cycle at a Lieder recital, but despite my many thousands of hours with Schumann, I had not, for whatever reason, come upon this beautiful and curious set of songs, Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, Op. 135—or, Poems by Mary, Queen of Scots. Philip Borg-Wheeler writes in his useful programme notes that the poems are ‘doubtfully attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots and translated by G. von Vincke’. By Mary or not, the songs, even in German, have a wonderful Elizabethan flavour and in these five short settings (the whole cycle probably takes under ten minutes) Schumann achieves a moving, elegiac simplicity that I have not heard elsewhere in his work.

A curious quality of this programme was that the middle of it was far more enthralling than either the beginning or the end—the opposite of the typical song recital. The first half had ended on the high point of Schumann’s Maria-Gedichte, and the second half began with what was perhaps the highlight of the entire recital—Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. This set of songs is the most famous in the programme, and I did not expect any great revelations from such familiar material. I was wrong, however, to take such a jaded view, since both performers made this set of songs sound as fresh and new as if I had not heard them before.

It is probably fair to say that Mahler, with his approx. ten symphonies, is more of an instrumental than a vocal composer—even if his symphonies do feature large choral parts here and there. Accordingly then, it is the piano, and not the voice, that seems to be the star of this cycle. Indeed, it is not surprising that Mahler himself orchestrated most of these songs, too. He seems to have been thinking orchestrally, even as he wrote for the piano.

The finest song of the set is the last, “Ich bin der Welt anhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world). Recalling at several points the famous “Adagietto” from his Symphony #5, this song, by its final measures—and thanks to the wonderful sensitivity of its performers—seemed to cast a real spell over the audience. Such a transcendent sense of peace and stillness came over the hall that I found myself put into an involuntary state of prayer—a key part of which was my prayer that the audience let the stillness be preserved, and not destroyed by clapping too soon. Thankfully, the spell seemed to be collective, since no one could bear to clap until the point at which it would have been frightfully rude not to, i.e., the point at which Englishness took over from sanctity. Up until that point, it was a truly amazing moment. And all this happened even as Morison’s voice seemed to cloud up a bit. I don’t know whether this was owing to tiredness, the severe January cold, the difficulty of Mahler’s musical demands, etc. But it proved that a perfect, virtuoso technique is nothing compared with the true artistry of a moving performance.

The programme wound down with five songs by the film composer Erich Korngold. The first, “Glückwunsch”, a song of well-wishing, was utterly charming and heartwarming, and a nice discovery. “Der Kranke” (The Sick Person) has proved less memorable, but the final three songs were all at the very least interesting. “Old Spanish Song” has splashes of Spanish colour but is German in language and manner throughout. The final two songs, “Old English Song” and “My Mistress’ Eyes” were in English, and the first songs of the night not in German. This itself was a pleasant change, even if the songs in themselves were not terribly remarkable. They both, however, took the listener back to the German-inflected Elizabethan world of the Schumann which ended the first half—a nice bit of intelligent programming. “Old English Song” was about Elizabeth, Essex, and Cadiz; and Shakespeare-lovers will know that “My Mistress’ Eyes” is a setting of the Bard’s famous Sonnet 130.

This concert was understandably very warmly received, and the performers were drawn back on stage several times by thunderous and exceptionally drawn out applause. Morison charmingly responded to the numerous audience “hurrah!”s by placing her hand humbly over her heart and bowing. She and Middleton concluded the evening’s recital with a brief encore—another Brahms song which imagined the rough music of a set of street musicians (nicely mimicked by the piano part) as two lovers walk out in the street, enjoying the music, whereon the lady leans towards her lover, and tells him not to forget her. A moving conclusion and, I am sure, a fitting one, since no one who was there will forget Morison’s fine singing and artistry.

Leeds Lieder—of which Joseph Middleton is the director—continue to please and thrill Leeds’ crowds with the finest singers and accompanists, sharing some of the most accessible, exquisite, and simply enjoyable of classical repertoire. They have a wonderful line-up of events for 2019, the highlights of which are the annual festival (Thurs 25–Sun 28 April) and a recital given by Middleton with the great Roderick Williams on Sunday 2 March.

For more details, visit www.liedslieder.org.uk

Photograph by Julie Howden.

Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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