FringeReview UK 2018
Shona Knight (soprano) Nick Houghton (piano) perform ‘Love and War’ a series of settings of Vaughan Williams, Handel, Poulenc, Gurney, Britten, Strauss, Schumann, Quilter and Bernstein.
It’s good to see stars in the making. Recent Durham graduate but Brighton-born Shona Knight (soprano) arrives with pianist Nick Houghton to perform ‘Love and War’ a series of settings of Vaughan Williams, Handel, Poulenc, Gurney, Britten, Strauss, Schumann, Quilter and Bernstein.
Though themed round war it moves away from this and provides glimpses of the visionary. We started where Vaughan Williams’ ‘Silent Noon’ reached for an Edwardian summer stillness rendered poignant by his and our later knowledge of how he’d commemorate war. But here it’s love’s prologue before the flinty travelling. Nick Houghton’s piano always supportive, quite discreet, is so seamless you unfairly take him for granted. Until Strauss and Schumann that is.
Next, Cleopatra mourns her lover’s death, though prematurely. Julius Caesar wasn’t to die yet, and in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, ‘Piangero’ sums up a coloratura of angst and bewildering, very different to the trouser-roled titular hero’s arias. Knight colours this in well in a reading that’s more modern recital than obviously period-inflected.
Poulenc’s C is a rapt but war-darkened song of a place Poulenc in quiet resistance mode is contemplating in 1944, just when the Germans are about to be driven back from Normandy. This isn’t the heart-easing Cocteau-sipping boy but the post-reconverted Catholic Poulenc (who could still have fun) at his most layered, telegraphic, intense: a song to hear twice. Knight teases out its slant melancholy well.
A trio of war-lined pieces followed, though none strictly dates from war. Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) a major poet rediscovered as well as major song composer, spent the last fifteen years of his life in an asylum. The war exacerbated rather than caused his sufferings, though didn’t silence Gurney. Even in his magnificent ‘Sleep’ setting words by the Elizabethan dramatist Fletcher in a penumbra of viols as it sounds, you can hear it. Perhaps this was the heart of the recital, since it lies so perfectly in Knight’s voice. A masterpiece, masterfully sung in its floating; a kind of benediction from nameless premonition.
Britten’s whirligig ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’ from his 1937 collection On This Island Op 11 sets Auden’s words from the previous year (his collection Look, Stranger, words which precede Britten’s title). Auden had already left to fight in Spain. The pacifist Britten wrote several pieces for the Internationalists including Ballad of Heroes Op 14 shortly after this setting and the Violin Concerto Op 15 after that.
There’s no doubt in the way Knight sings it, words and music are politically charged, full of a spiralling dire warning about Britain (Auden left for good in March 1939, thinking we’d surrender to fascism and turned up again a US Army major with the Bomb Damage commission rather tactlessly saying London had it quite lightly). This edgy palate and melodic slant suit Knight too, and it’d be good to hear her in more of this kind of repertoire.
Nevertheless Vaughan Williams lies felicitously on Knight’s soaringly lyric soprano, and she proves this in an unaccompanied piece ‘The Twilight People’ which sounds like nothing so much as his marvellous opera Riders to the Sea (1927) fully mature visionary lyricism, flecked by tragedy. Again Knight is haunting here, and sounding haunted.
The play of the opera was by J M Synge and here perhaps was a sketch for it, another Irish setting by Seumas O’Sullivan in 1925 during the time VW wrote his opera. You’d think VWs’ friend Arnold Bax more likely to set this, but the context seems to have recharged the older composer’s sense of strangeness, that haunted end of his spectrum. Knight really inhabits this. It’s terrific.
The Richard Strauss song from his Op 27 (c.1894) ‘Ruhe meine Seele’ is dark, loaded with separate chords almost like Wolf, with some Brahmsian dark too. but it’s still a heart-soaring piece and again as we hear less Strauss and indeed late German lieder than we should I do hope Knight’s lyricism explores composers like Marx and Korngold too. Schumann’s ‘Widmung’ is a rapturous hymn to Clara Wieck, or Schumann as she’d become by 1840 the year of song when this was written. As you might imagine, Knight sings it rapturously too.
Quilter’s early ‘Love’s Philosophy’ is a rapturous anticipation with its minor-keyed refrain surely one of the best uses of late-Victorian popular lyricism.
By contrast Hubert Parry’s centenary falls this year, and his setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘My heart is like a singing bird’ is attractive and searching if not as strange and slant as the poem. Significantly Parry adds a conventional ‘a’ before the words ‘watered shoot’ which makes sense but which Rossetti eschews. But the main thing is Parry set it. It’s thewed with his characteristic veiled chromaticism, at an uneasy angle to Victorianism, like Rossetti herself. We forget he was fascinated by young Schoenberg. All his work behind ‘Jerusalem’ is as probing, and sometimes inspired. Knight penetrates that, irradiating this curious fitful work.
Finally on another centenary, Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story makes a heart-warming, even heart-breaking encore. Knights creamy top notes rise and take us there effortlessly. An outstanding debut.