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Fleur Barron and Julius Drake I

by on 21 January 2018

Whistle-stop Excellence

Fleur Barron and Julius Drake

Part one: Songs by Brahms and Schumann

Richmond Concert Society at St Margaret’s, Twickenham, 16th January

Review by Mark Aspen

Bitches, witches and breeches! These, it is said, form the repertoire of the mezzo-soprano. Shame, says I, for I’ve always thought when listening to lady singers that that the mezzo register is my favourite. Now I know it is. And how much wider is the repertoire.

Fleur Barron 2.jpg

Fleur Barron’s recent concert at St Margaret’s was a whistle-stop affair. She flew in from Zurich, not I hasten to add on a broomstick, at a few hours’ notice to replace the advertised singer, who sadly had to withdraw that very morning with the singer’s nightmare of a zero voice. She came with, and at the recommendation of, renowned pianist Julius Drake. Drake’s skills are in high demand worldwide and he has collaborated with a wide range of well-known opera singers. As soon as Drake’s fingers met the Steinway and Barron began to sing, it was obvious that we were to be in for something really special.

Julius Drake 1

Fleur Barron was given the accolade of a Britten Pears Young Artist last year, and in 2016 was awarded the unique Jackson Prize for Excellence from the prestigious Tanglewood Music Festival. Barron and Drake have often collaborated, but it was remarkable that within an afternoon they were able to present a programme of the highest quality from their mutual repertoire.

Most striking though was Barron’s versatility. Yes, the bitches, witches and breeches were hinted at, but we had a wonderfully characterised range of characters, old and young, male and female, some of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and many many of the beautiful. For her acting skills are quite apparent and it clear that she is a skilful opera performer. Recent major roles have included the title role in Carmen at the Aspen Music Festival [editor’s note: we must disclaim at this point that the Mark Aspen website sponsors the Festival], a role to which she would obviously give pizzazz.

The programme opened with four pairs of songs by Brahms. A spooky start with the first pair Auf dem Kirchhofe (in the churchyard) and Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht (death, that is the cool night) set the spine a-tingling. The first, which describes a derelict graveyard in a storm, was sung with a strong definite attack, melting to resignation at the thought of the slumbering coffins. The second song however contrasts death with a song of a young nightingale, which sings of nothing but love, and the piece gave a good opportunity to exhibit the richness of Barron’s mezzo.

The second couple of Brahms’ songs were in a much lighter vein, the playful Spanisches Lied , in which a young girl wonders if she should wake up her sleeping lover, and the complementary Vergebliches Ständchen (futile serenade) a humorous dialogue between a young man who is knocking at the girl’s bedroom door. “Macht auf die Tur” (open up the door) he pleads. She will have none of his presumption, “Gute Nacht, mein Knab,” (good night, my boy). Changes in tempo and switches to a minor key animated the piece and there were light-hearted exchanges between singer and accompanist.

The next pair of songs are more reflective and from an older person’s viewpoint.
Therese, in which the “milchjunger Knabe” (boy fresh from his mother’s milk) questions the older Therese with his eyes. He may have a lot to learn, for the poet in Alte Liebe speaks of finding “den altern Liebesharm” (the grief of old love). This sense of longing, sang so tenderly by Barron, intensifies in the final pair of Brahms’ songs, Unbewegte laue Luft (motionless, tepid air) and Botschaft (message). The wind gets up in the second song “lind und lieblich um die Wange meiner Geliebten” (balmy and delightful around the cheek of my beloved). But to no avail, the love is no longer requited. The intensity of longing brings to mind that lovely untranslatable German word, Sehnsucht, literally a seeking to see (one’s beloved).

Brahms owed much of his early recognition to Robert Schumann and indeed Schumann’s wife Clara rather regarded Brahms as their prodigy. The Schumann legacy was apparent in the set of seven songs by Robert Schumann. Barron’s ability to put across the feeling of the song was obvious in Die Kartenlegerin, a fortune teller reading the cards, in this case a young woman trying to foretell her own prospects of life and love. She is torn between excitement and anxiety as revelations come. She has put aside her sewing when her mother fell asleep over her book, and now plays the cherry-stone game of rich man, poor man … but what’s this, an old crone come to banish happiness. Whoops, it’s real life and Mum’s woken up! “Die Karten lügen nie” (the cards never lie)!

But in Der Schwere Abend (the sultry evening) the young woman walks in the overcast garden with a man. Like the day, their love has lost its shine, and she wishes they were both dead. Barron’s punch on the word Tod (death) shouted anguish. However, when the lovers in Lehn deine Wang’ an meine (rest your cheek on mine) are together the young woman thinks she will Sterb’ ich vor Liebessehnen (die of love’s desire)! A lovely short declaration. In Stille Liebe (silent love) she says she is lost for words, but still manages to sing her “kleine Lied”, a pretty piece in which the delicacy of Barron’s singing was echoed by Drake’s beautifully delicate high piano.

The Schumann songs then took a different direction form the gently lyrical, a sharp about-march to the military, and the heart-breaking dilemma of Der Soldat, the soldier who is in the firing squad detailed to execute his own dear friend. Ironically, of the nine bullets, only his hits the target, the convicted friend’s heart. Gulp! Voice and piano combined, opening in slow march time and reaching the powerful forte crescendo on “das Hertz” (the heart).
And in Tragödie (tragedy) one could almost hear the pathos dripping. In Tragödie I, two young lovers elope and run away to a distant land, but in Tragödie II, tired and lost in a wood, they fall asleep amongst the spring bluebells, but in the night there is a hard frost.
And they perish! … Barron and Drake leave the pathos hanging. (There is a Tragödie III, in which many years later a miller and his girlfriend sit at the same spot where a linden has now grown. It is a warm and happy summer’s evening, yet they start to weep without knowing why.)

Finally with Schumann we were taken on a dreamy trip into the dappled sunshine of the greenwood as Mein Wagen rollet langsam, my carriage slowly rolls on. The occupant half asleep suddenly sees “drei Schattengestalten”, three shadowy forms, who whirls past in a mist, pulling faces at him and chuckling. Maybe there were too many magic mushrooms in that wood!

Mark Aspen
January 2018

Photographs courtesy of Fleur Barron and Julius Drake

Mark Aspen’s review will continue with Songs by Ives, Debussy and De Falla.


From → Music, Reviews

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