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Purcell/Britten, Warlock, Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber and Britten

Purcell, realised by Britten: Sweeter than roses, I attempt from love’s sickness to fly, Evening Hymn
Peter Warlock
Yarmouth Fair (1924), Three Hillaire Belloc Songs (1926), Sleep (1922)
Ned Rorem: Four Sonnets of Shakespeare (2009) (world première – Wigmore Hall commission)
Samuel Barber: Despite and Still, op.41 (1969)
Britten: On This Island, op.11 (1937)


Andrew Kennedy – tenor, Roger Vignoles – piano


Wigmore Hall – 27 September 2009


A nicely planned short recital for a Sunday afternoon, contrasting some more difficult pieces with some winners.


Kennedy gave the Britten realisations of Purcell well, light of voice and easy in phrasing, he floated the vocal line over a sympathetic accompaniment from Vignoles. But I found myself thinking that the realisations were far too fussy. Maybe that great healer hindsight makes me think this way, although I still adore the Stokowski transcriptions of Bach, but methinks that Britten over egg’s the pudding a bit too much for my taste. Surely Purcell should be lighter than this?


The five Warlock songs were most welcome. Yarmouth Fair – a co–composition with E J Moeran – sets words by Warlock’s Maori man servant Hal Collins. It’s a real rollicking song but here Kennedy had to clip some notes in order to be able to take breath. It’s a deceptively simple song but requires lungs of iron! I know. I’ve sung it! And perhaps one doesn’t need to be totally faithful to the notes here – I would have preferred a real laugh – ho ho – rather than his singing the notes allotted to the word and a real shout of Hurray Hurray would be better than the rather prosaic setting given it. I found that that works very well indeed. The Belloc settings are serious Warlock. Kennedy was in his element here – a beautiful line and sustained singing made them speak clearly about the end of things, the night and a return home. Sleep is one of this composer’s masterpieces, and is another of his homages to the Eliabethan ayre; it works very well in Warlock’s own transcription for string quartet. Again, strong lungs are required to get through some of the seemingly endless phrases and again Kennedy had to clip some notes just to breathe, and this slightly spoiled the ecstatic flow of the music.


No such problems in the new songs by Ned Rorem. The first – sonnet 60 – had an easy flowing gait to it, the second – no.73 – was unaccompanied and I didn’t really feel that this worked; the starkness of the music was at odds with the richness of the language. Sonnet 90, the third, is a scherzo with attitude – Then hate me when thou wilt – which was very well characterized here, and the set ended with a setting of sonnet 18, How shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Starting with a long piano introduction, and including a couple of unaccompanied sections, which, as before seemed too small for the words, there was a cumulative growth to this song and it was an impressive setting of great words.


Samuel Barber’s late cycle Despite and Still is a more difficult listen than much of his output. Perhaps his choice of words – three poems by Robert Graves, a section from Joyce’s Ulysses and a poem by Theodore Roethke – brought out a hard side in him. Kennedy and Vignoles did what they could with the music, but the songs are too unforgiving to be entirely pleasurable.


However, Britten’s On This Island is entirely enjoyable. Kennedy went all out here – perhaps being a bit too boyish in his enthusiasm! I would have welcomed more restraint in the first song – Let the florid music praise – but elsewhere he was at home. The rapid, almost tongue–twisting Now the leaves are falling fast was superb, Seascape and Nocturne showing great restraint and As it is, plenty was sent up just as it should be.


Thoroughly enjoyable, but I wish Kennedy hadn’t spent so much time leaning against the piano as if he were leaning against a lamppost!!


Bob Briggs