A large and expectant audience crowded into St Michael’s Church, Milverton on 7 March for a concert by soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Simon Lepper. Both artists have established and growing international reputations, and travel schedules to match; but since Elizabeth lives near Taunton, and has an enthusiastic local following, the occasion had the atmosphere of a family gathering. It was, by any standards, a triumph.
Elizabeth’s versatility is prodigious: she is equally at home on the operatic stage (most recently as Zerlina in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden), in Baroque and contemporary repertoire, in oratorio, and in major works with orchestra by Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams. But, as winner of the Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007, it was in the realm of the art song that she emerged as a major new talent. She takes great care in devising her own programmes: on this occasion the theme was ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, a story of love, self-sacrifice, rejection – a whole gamut of emotions encompassing joy and sorrow. A varied and coherent choice of songs explored this range of intense feelings; and, most helpfully, translations of all the texts were provided, which greatly assisted understanding and appreciation.
The first group of songs, by Richard Strauss, encompassed a composing career of more than 50 years, including early works and possibly the last piece he wrote. Dreams, memories, tenderness – all were evoked in expressive, chromatically intense music of great dramatic power. Elizabeth Watts managed to give each musical phrase its own unique character, shading and adapting her rich and radiant tone to extract the maximum of meaning from the words, and using a formidable technique to sustain and shape extended soaring lines of melody.
There followed five songs by Henri Duparc, a long-lived composer whose life was blighted by mental illness and who destroyed much of his work: the quality of what remains reinforces the tragedy of this loss. These settings of French Romantic poetry take us to a world of lush sensuality and perfumed luxury, but perhaps the predominant feelings are loss, suffering and unfulfilled longing – promising material for both composer and interpreters! Here it was apparent that Elizabeth Watts is as fine an actor as she is a singer – the intensity of the dramatic presentation equalled the beauty of the singing, and the audience was rapt.
After the interval we heard The Poet’s Echo by Benjamin Britten – a rarely heard setting of poems by Pushkin, composed for Britten’s friends, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband, the legendary cellist (and, evidently, outstanding pianist) Mstislav Rostropovich. Here, too, the theme is lack of fulfilment – the poet seeks to communicate, to find love and understanding, but there is no answer. Musically this is a fascinating work: to complement the rhapsodic, declamatory lines of the soloist, the piano offers, not a conventional accompaniment, but as it were an independent interpretation – intricate, delicate, scintillating – of the words. This is a piece that surely demands repeated listening. It received a passionate and gripping performance, in which Elizabeth Watts showed that she is as much at home with the Russian language as she is with French, German and Spanish.
Tribute must be paid to the outstanding artistry of accompanist Simon Lepper.
Indeed, ‘accompanist’ seems a misnomer: this was a partnership of musical equals. Whether in the muscular Romanticism of Strauss, the impressionistic, quasi-orchestral colourings of Duparc, or the glittering precision of Britten, Simon Lepper’s sensitive, delicate and at times powerful virtuosity was an ideal complement to his musical partner, and their instinctive coordination was a delight to hear.
After so much emotional intensity, the last section of the programme, of works from the Spanish-speaking world, came as a distinct relief – although the underlying theme of unrequited yearning, and loss, was still present, the musical language was less stark. Highlights were Granados’ ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale’ with a melody which clutches at the heartstrings, and the vigorous, tongue-in-cheek ‘El Vito’ by Obradors, where one could almost hear the castanets: an ideal ending to the programme. Here too Elizabeth Watts held the audience in the palm of her hand. In response to the tempestuous applause, the audience was rewarded with two encores: a haunting miniature by Rimsky Korsakov, and the story of perhaps the best-known nightingale in music – who sang in Berkeley Square.
This was an imaginative and original programme which could be enjoyed on different levels – as an exploration of some of the most profound components of human experience, as a comparison of musical styles, or just as a way to revel in beautiful sounds made by two of the finest musicians on the contemporary concert stage. The programme will shortly be heard at London’s Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw – this shows the standard aspired to, and achieved, by Milverton Concert Society who deserve the gratitude of the music-lovers of Somerset.
Review by Andrew Carter