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Rose Opera in Recital

by on 21 November 2021

Salon Culture 

Rose Opera in Recital

Rose Opera, at the 1901 Arts Club, Waterloo, 17th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Here is salon culture in style, the intimate soirée, sans salonnières.  Strip away that formality and conversazione and enter the charming 1901 Arts Club, the bijoux bolt-hole known only to aficionados of chamber music, tucked away near the hustle and bustle of Waterloo Station.  Think a miniature version of a Pall-Mall club, but where you don’t need to wear a necktie.  All is chintzy or bee-waxed antique furniture, comfy in a whisky-and-cigars sort of way. 

Originally the headmaster’s house for the church school associated with the nearby St John’s, Waterloo (a magnificent Greek Revival church; think the Acropolis with a steeple), it was bought in 2007 by the philanthropist, Joji Hattori, to be used as a space for chamber music that had the intimate ambience of a private residence.   Tonight we are welcomed by the genial Glenn Kesby on behalf of the venue, who invites us to stay afterwards for the aforementioned whisky; and then by Rose Opera trustee, Professor Alethea Tabor, who introduces the evening.

The programme comprises three sets of Lieder by Mahler, Richard Strauss and Rachmaninov, parenthesised by two pieces by the contemporary English composer, James Francis Brown, who is with us, an honoured guest in the audience. 

The soloist for the recital is Ukrainian-born soprano Tamara Ravenhill.  She cuts an assured figure in a pale turquoise chiffon cape, as she takes her place before the brilliantly burnished Steinway where her accompanist Andrew Robinson takes his seat.  The backdrop of golden swags completes the opulent picture; and no doubt enhances the acoustics in a small room that hardly contains an opera-singer’s voice.

Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder premiered in 1905, with Mahler himself conducting, together with his Kindertotenlieder, now better-known (although much heavier in subject matter), a programme based on poems written by Friedrich Rückert.  Co-incidentally all the Lieder were being written in 1901 as the house we sit in was being built. 

Seemingly simple in melody and words, Um Mitternacht starts the cycle of five songs.  But the poet’s anxiety in his own helplessness in the darkness of the universe increases, until eventually he finds solace in prayer.  The beautifully lyrical Liebst du um Schönheit cautions against loving for beauty, youth or riches, but “liebst du um Liebe … dich liebe ich immerdar” (love me for love’s sake and I will love you for evermore).  Equally, when lost to the world, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the music suggests a calmness comes from being alone “in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” (in my heaven, my love, my song), a calmness that can also come from breathing the soft fragrance of the lime tree Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft.   The poet though is protective of that song, not wanting (like most artists) work-in-progress to be seen.  So in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Don’t look into my songs) the pianissimo conclusions of the previous two Lieder abruptly becomes an anxious liveliness, completing the cycle. 

Tamara Ravenhill

Ravenhill’s lirico-spinto soprano is well suited to these Lieder of Mahler’s and is taken to the next step with Richard Strauss’s Opus 27, four passionate pieces based on works by German poets, although one, John Henry Mackay (who contrarily was a rather unsavoury character) was born in Scotland.  It is said that Strauss wrote all these Lieder very quickly.  Indeed Cäcilie (Cicely) was completed on the day before his wedding, when he gave Opus 27 as a present to his new wife, Pauline.  This work gives Ravenhill chance to demonstrate the range and strength of her voice. 

Cäcilie is a case in point.  It is a poem of desire, a string of phrases each starting “Wenn Du es wüßtest …” (If you knew …) that reach a crescendo in the concept of living in God’s breath.  Ravenhill gives it full fortissimo at this point.  She also gives full welly in the first of the set, Ruhe, meine Seele! (Rest, My Soul: a piece that Strauss was to fully orchestrate a half-century later, just before his death).  In the mid-section, evoking violently surging sea waves, both her voice and the piano’s phrasing are full of loud turmoil.  In contrast the piece ends by returning to “Ruhe, meine Seele, und vergiß …” (Rest, my soul, and forget …), when the piano’s diminuendo vanishes into silence. 

The final two Lieder in the set Heimliche Aufforderung and Morgen are of a gentler frame of mind.  However Heimliche Aufforderung (Secret Invitation) does hint at some naughtiness, of eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room type.  Nevertheless, when the invitation is accepted, out in the garden things hot up; “an die Brust dir sinken …deine Küsse trinken…” (sink on your breast … drink your kisses …).  Then passion comes from the piano and power from the voice. 

Morgen (Tomorrow) is a lovely piece, quiet and tender.  It is summarised by the opening and closing lines,  “Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen … und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen” (And tomorrow the sun will shine again … and the speechless silence of bliss shall fall upon us).

It is clear that Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso pianist as well as an outstanding composer, for in tonight’s set of three songs, the piano is foregrounded.  The piano line is decorated with trills and with codas that underline the notions that are expressed in the Russian words.  Andrew Robinson is a consummate pianist, but unassumingly gives to these decorations without pulling the focus.  Robinson and Ravenhill work as a seamless team.  In Маргаритки (Daisies), for example, music and words are mutually expressive.  It is a purely descriptive piece, but the flowers and their movement can be heard, particularly in the final phrasing of tumbling notes.   Не пой, красавица, при мне (Oh, Do Not Sing For Me, Fair Maiden), a well-known poem by Alexander Pushkin (and also set to music by Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov), is a simple plea not to be reminded of a lover who is far away.  Ravenhill hits the word “жестокие” (cruel) with power, and the piano coda underlines the anguish.  There is also a very effective piano coda in Мелодия (Melody) a piece which tackles the sensitive of dying “a good death”, dying “на крыльях упоенья” (on the wings of ecstasy), where the coda “floats” away; “я плыву… плыву” (I am floating, floating).

James Francis Brown

The special focus of Rose Opera in Recital, though, is on two works by James Francis Brown, a successful composer with a wide portfolio of oeuvres, ranging from chamber music, through concertos, to brass bands compositions.  He has notably worked with the Royal Opera House in settings for various works, especially by Wagner, including an arrangement of his unfinished Singspiel Männerlist größer als Frauenlist (Men’s cunning is greater than women’s cunning).  As one of the Music Haven composers, he has also written an arrangement of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

The opening piece tonight is Ozymandias, a setting of Percy Bysche Shelley’s well-known sonnet, which alludes to the Egyptian king, Ramesses II.  It warns of the transient nature of all things and that even the most mighty majesties cannot hold back time.  Premiered at the Presteigne Festival in 2012, Brown’s take on the poem is certain very dramatic.  The bold triple-time opening sets the scene and introduces the “traveller from an antique land” who tells his tale in four-four time.  Ravenhill holds words for emphasis; “desert” is significant.  The musical intensity develops until “The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed” maximises the anticipatory feel.  Then the climax of the dead king’s pronouncement on the tomb’s inscription, “’Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!” at our soprano’s fortissimo, which is quite impressive.  Then she follows the diminuendo as the music falls into a sarabande which is almost like the trickle of an hourglass, as “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The final piece of the evening is Adieu based on a poem by Camille Saint-Saëns.  Few will recognise the great composer and musician Saint-Saëns as an accomplished poet.  I must admit that I didn’t.  Could the poem be another metaphor for death, following as it does on the heels of Rachmaninoff’s melody of parting?  It starts “Je pars.  La vaisseau superb … m’emportera …” (I’ll take my leave. The mighty ship… will bear me away) and finishes in a wonderful place where “les poissons ont des ailes” (even the fish have wings”).   Or could it be a romantic fantasy?  Brown’s music votes that way with a piece that hints at Romanticism with a touch of Britten or Tippett and Ravenhill takes it the same way.  I am sure she would concur with the line “L’Opera, temple des gloires” (although it does go on to mention its attendant worries). 

The composer, who sits immediately in front of me, seems delighted.  The operatic glories have been shared between vocalist and pianist.   Robinson, after his superb rendering of the music, remains relaxed.  Ravenhill has taken on a mammoth task of being the centre of attention for the last seventy minutes.  She is still a little tense, like so many performers after so long an enforced absence from the stage.  In her singing style, she very much takes control of the music, and her technical prowess is unimpeachable, but she holds back from letting the music take hold of her.  When the restrictions of the pestilence fade, then perhaps our performers can feel once more at home on the stage. 

Now, the charms of the 1901 Arts Club, upstairs to the retiring room (spot the hidden chamber organ) and that proffered whisky.  Then again, its Prosecco is second to none, and a toast is in order.

Mark Aspen, November 2021

Photography courtesy of the Hattori Foundation, Rose Opera and Music Haven.

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