Sunday, August 24, 2008

Nicholas Clapton-countertenor and Jonathan Watts-piano

It was 10:30 p.m. and people were streaming into the Great Hall of Dartington Hall on a blustery summer evening to hear a recital of English songs performed by countertenor Nicholas Clapton and pianist Jonathan Watts.

Nicholas Clapton, born in Worcester, has pursued a wide-ranging career in opera, oratorio and recital, he writes and researches, records and teaches. Born in Wales, Jonathan Watts has embraced many styles of keyboard playing, exploring the huge repertoire of piano-, organ- and harpsichord accompaniment.

The evening’s concert began with an arrangement of “The Three Ravens” by John Ireland (1879-1962). Organist and teacher, Ireland has produced much great English art-song, his style influenced more by French and Russian style than by folk-song style in Britain of his time. “The Three Ravens”, a spine-chilling folk ballad printed in the Melismata Song Book, was compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611. It opens with three scavenger birds discussing their next meal – a recently slain knight. Ireland’s arrangement of the song is rich and dark, with Clapton and Watts quickly setting the scene. Ireland’s harmonies contain surprises and Clapton matches them with his strong, kaleidoscope of vocal color.

“Silent Noon” (1903) is one of six sonnets composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) to texts by the English poet, illustrator, painter and translator Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Complex, erotic and sensual, the sequence was known as “The House of Life”. Rossetti described the sonnet form as a “moment’s monument”.
‘Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:--
So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above.’
Evocative and lush, Clapton’s piani were magical set against the accompaniment Watts wove into the texture in shaped, nuanced phrases.

Organist, pianist, conductor and music critic W. Denis Browne (1888-1915) was a masterful songwriter. He fell in battle at age 27. His output consists of a handful of songs, a small quantity of choral, orchestral and piano music and an incomplete ballet. In his setting of Ben Jonson’s “Epitaph on Salathiel Pavey” (Salathiel Pavay was a child of Elizabeth I’s, chapel; he died very young) his dramatization is subtle, his writing for piano rich and beguiling.

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) was mainly a composer for the stage, also composing orchestral- and chamber music as well as piano- and vocal music for young musicians. His opus 30/3 setting of William Butler Yeats’ (1865-1939) “The Cloths of Heaven”, composed in 1910, is one of his best-known works performed by (adult) soloists. Clapton, his silken legato speaking the poem’s bitter-sweet text, brings out the humble and tender aspects of this touching piece.
‘I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

Violist and conductor Frank Bridge (1879-1941) composed orchestral- and chamber music as well as 45 songs. Clapton and Watts performed his ballad “Love Went A-Riding” (1914) written to words of Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), with energy and excitement, the effect of galloping horses urgent and vivid. I loved the piano part, which is every bit as interesting and challenging as the vocal line.

Pianist Nicholas Marshall was born in Plymouth in 1942 and has taught at the Dartington College of Arts. His “Five Winter Songs” is a descriptive and evocative group of miniatures, beginning with Shakespeare’s “Winter” – a moody, direct, almost theatrical piece. The composer draws a vignette of stealthy feline gestures in his setting of W.B.Yeats’ “The Cat and the Moon” and an uncompromising, icy, bleak picture in the setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Song”. Following Marshall’s intense setting of Thomas Hardy’s “A Sheep Fair”, John Drinkwater’s “January Dusk” paints a gloomy picture of winter’s grey bareness, however, reminding us that spring’s “buds”, “primrose airs” and “coloured retinue” offer hope.

We were privileged to hear Nicholas Clapton in the first performance of Robin Walker’s “The Names of the Hare” composed for unaccompanied counter-tenor, to an anonymous medieval text translated in 1981 by the Irish poet, writer and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney. Walker, born in York in 1953, has taught and traveled widely and now spends his time mainly composing. “The Names of the Hare” is feisty, rhythmical and wordy, plying the listener with ideas and associations at a swift rate, the text presenting a startling description of the animal that symbolizes the untamable and the uncontainable as well as wild sexuality. Clapton’s performance of this unconventional work was brilliant.

Born in Sussex, Roger Quilter’s (1877-1953) reputation rests mainly on his oeuvre of light orchestral music and more than 100 songs. The concert concluded with Quilter’s “Five Shakespeare Songs” opus 23 for high voice and piano. The song cycle opens with the somewhat modal and flowing “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” in a lovely cantabile, pensive mood, this being is followed by “Under the greenwood tree”, a canvas rich in movement and early 20th century English harmonies. “It was a lover and his lass” was given a lyrical, delightful performance, full of joy and sunlight, with delicate hints of bird calls in the piano part, after which it was contrasted by the more thoughtful miniature - “Take, o take those lips away”, its long, flowing phrases sung sensitively. The whimsical last song “Hey, ho, the wind and the rain” from Twelfth Night was lively and amusing, bringing this interesting, varied and inspiring recital to an end. It was now time to face the wind and the rain outside.

The Great Hall,
Dartington Hall,Devon,UK
July 31,2008

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