Review: ‘Shakespeare and Music’ concert

Forming part of Oxford Lieder Festival, mezzo-soprano Catherine Hopper and tenor John Mark Ainsley offered a vocal recital at the Holywell Music Room last week on the theme of ‘Shakespeare and Music’. Accompanied by James Baillieu, they presented a programme by French, German, and English composers who all set texts by the English playwright.

The evening opened with a trio of songs by the little-known composer Roger Quilter, each sung by Ainsley. The choice to commence with such rarely aired works was, in itself, a welcome one, but the settings proved rather heavy-handed. ‘Blow, blow thou winter wind’ was typical of the three, its emphatic accompaniment veering between jolly and stormy, major and minor, with little attention paid to the tensions between the two. The vocal line, too, was far from subtle; musical puns, such as reaching the highest pitch on the word ‘sharp’, ironically, fell flat. Ainsley’s delivery was commendable throughout, and particularly assured in his upper register, but one was left with the feeling that a stronger series of curtain-raisers would have given him more to work with.

Hopper’s first set of songs was a sextet on Hamlet’s Ophelia: three by Johannes Brahms, three by Richard Strauss. In an act of inventive programming, she alternated between the two composers’ works. Brahms’ ‘Wie erken ich dein Treulieb’ (‘How shall I know your true love’) was followed by Strauss’ ‘Erstes lied der Ophelia’ (‘First Ophelia Song’), with which it shares a text, and so on. A minimal pause was left between one song and the next, a bold approach that served to highlight the contrasts present; Brahms’ works were more dense and remarkably restrained, while Strauss varied from misty, mystic melancholy to excitable energy. Unlike the lurching modes within Quilter’s ‘Blow, blow’, the intercompositional juxtapositions created here seemed imbued with greater interpretative meaning. Each text used was a song sung by Ophelia after she has turned mad, following her father’s death. By switching suddenly between composers, moods, and song cycles, Hopper compounded this sense of madness, a choice that provided ample opportunity to demonstrate her impressive expressive range.

The final eight songs, performed by Ainsley, were altogether more humorous than those of the first half, demanding extended vocal techniques that seemed composed for laughs rather than experimentalism. Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel had the singer take on the role of sprite, imitating the ‘bow-wow’ of a dog and the ‘ding-dong’ of a bell. Peter Warlock’s ‘Pretty ringtime’ and ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ revelled in the repetition of ‘hey-nonny-no’, with the final iteration of the phrase in the latter song lowered comically in pitch, in an apparent evocation of a lecherous old man. Rather than detracting from Ainsley’s performance, though, such moments built upon his strengths as a performer, allowing him to exhibit a level of dexterity that seemed somewhat repressed in the first half. If there has been no mention of Baillieu yet, it is not to his detriment. As accompanist for both Hopper and Ainsley, he was required to set the stage for two very different musical personalities, and he did so unobtrusively and effectively.

At the close of the concert, though, one question still stuck. Is it intrinsically interesting to sing different settings of the same texts and remark that they sound different? A far more fruitful approach may be to consider how the running order could frame the way in which the texts are absorbed and understood, a method that Hopper seemed to explore by alternating between Brahms’ and Strauss’ Ophelia songs. At the concert’s worst, the strong performers onstage seemed stifled by uninspired programming. At its best, Ainsley, Hopper, and Baillieu proved that Shakespearean texts can still entertain and enchant with equal aplomb.

John Wadsworth

Oxford Lieder Festival runs until Saturday 31st October: for more information, tickets, and future events, please visit their website.

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