Brighton Year-Round 2019
Mary Thomas and Muriel Hart return to St Nicholas to give a soprano and piano recital – with one piano solo bisecting it. Roger Quilter, Puccini, Brahms, Max Reger, Balfour Gardiner (the piano solo), Thomas Dunhill, Eric Thiman, Michael Head, Peter Warlock, Annie Morgan, and Engelbert Humperdink.
Mary Thomas and Muriel Hart return to give a soprano and piano recital – with one piano solo bisecting it.
Thomas is characterised with a naturally high tessitura and as pianist Ambrose Page has put it, a ringing truth to all she sings. Whilst there’s admittedly a fading of vocal bloom – in a vintage still flowery – Thomas hits all the heights, where Puccini can leave one cruelly exposed. Hart continues to astonish with her agile pianism.
This is a Christmas-themed recital, and bar the operatic stops to open and close, primarily an English one too. Plenty of similar modal harmonies, and an oblique sense of the English Hymnal like a strand of DNA throughout these settings, couched in the familiar.
To begin Thomas energized with Roger Quilter’s ‘Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind’ bucks that a little with its mild bounce and swerve of Shakespeare’s rhythms.
Thomas enjoyed this as a curtain-raiser warming her voice to the famous Puccini aria from La Boheme: ‘Quando Men Vol’ with its vertiginous top-notes which Thomas manages with her naturally high-lying tessitura. It’s a remarkable feat though sounds uncomfortable.
Moving to Lieder Thomas enjoys her middle rage to great effect. There’s Brahms’ ‘Wiegenlied’ a lullaby which Thomas insinuates with a warmth to dispel winter. Max Reger’s not always associated with tunefulness but he wrote more than a clutch of memorable ones, and his ‘The Virgin’s Slumber Song’ is a tune you’d know though not attach to Reger. Again Thomas enjoys a mellifluous, sonorous delivery and consolatory warmth.
Muriel Hart then unleashed her secret solo, which turned out to be Balfour Gardiner’s ‘Noel’ one of his few pieces before he virtually stopped composing in 1920, having spent much time promoting other composers. Born like Quilter in 1877 he died three years before him in 1950, and his small oeuvre is only now expanding with a few discoveries This work in Hart’s hands emerges as an unusual construction, a work in its own right that ends quoting carols. We need to hear more of Gardiner.
Gardiner was certainly a champion of several composers of the next tranche. Thomas Dunhill (the third to be born in 1877, dying 1946) was an attractive academic composer, scion of the tobacco family who specialised in fine chamber music and songs such as ‘How Soft Upon the Evening Air’ with its individual lilt and slightly lit-up modal fleck – folksong and folksy fifths pioneered by Vaughan Williams aren’t far away here.
It’s more pronounced in the unknown Eric Thiman who on the strength of ‘Madonna and Child’ should be better known. It’s attractive and characterful within the gentle mode outlined above.
Michael Head is stronger than either in projecting a radiant summer to his music, a major-keyed inflection to winter and shadow in his ‘Little Road to Bethlehem’ which opens out melodically like a small sun.
Finally the troubled genius of Peter Warlock could fine down to songs and such hymns as ‘The First Mercy’ which employs his characteristic lilt and descending figures.
The American folksong sung in 1933 by the sixteen-year old Annie Morgan and noted down by John Niles is one of the greatest ever recorded or written. ‘I wonder as I wander’ is usually unaccompanied but Thomas and Hart enjoy a slight storytelling element punctuating the marvellous modal rawness and minor-keyed non-resolutions with chords that suggest a slow tread.
Finally Engelbert Humperdinks’s best-known opera Hansel and Gretel yields more than the obvious arias and this one ‘The Sandman’s song’ is an intriguing intimate close.
A heartfelt, truthful recital. As Ambrose Page adds ‘You believe every word.’