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FringeReview UK 2018

St Nicholas, Belladonna – Sue Mileham Soprano, Jane Plessner Clarinet, Nicola Grunberg Piano

Sue Mileham, Jane Plessner, Nicola Grunberg

Genre: Live Music, Music

Venue: St Nicholas Brighton, Dyke Road


Low Down

St Nicholas, Belladonna, Sue Mileham Soprano, Jane Plessner Clarinet, Nicola Grunberg Piano, performed their Belladonna recital consisting of Mozart arias and piano solos, three of the Six Spohr Clarinet and Piano-accompanied Songs Op 103, and British composers Arnold Cooke, Arthur Bliss, and Terence Greaves. September 26th 2018



This is a rare treat by three consummate musicians well-known in the area but hardly local. One – Nicola Grunberg – gave the British premiere with her late husband of Shostakovich’s final work, his Viola Sonata Op 147 in 1976.


Sue Mileham soprano, Jane Plessner clarinet, with Nicola Grunberg piano, performed their Belladonna recital consisting of Mozart arias and piano solos, three of the Six Spohr Clarinet and Piano-accompanied Songs Op 103, and British composers Arnold Cooke, Arthur Bliss, and Terence Greaves.


Frist up Mileham tackled ‘Voi che sapete’, Cherubino’s post-pubescent aria to the countess he’s persuaded to sing, basically expressing his crush in her. The amazing thing is she responds to it, ad in a sequel alas not set by Mozart, it’s clear they have an affair. Mileham exudes Cherubino’s fire-freeze confusion, his tumbling sexual excitement with a glint of humour but compassion too. Meileham has a strong dramatic delivery, particularly a comic one. She edges Mozart’s wild leaps and coloratura just beyond the polite in Cherubino’s breathless spasms. There’s dispatch and point her too.


Nest up were the three of the marvellous six Spohr Songs Op 103 written late in the once-lauded composer’s career in 1849, ten years before his death at 75. They’re thrilling especially the opening ‘Be still, my heart’, with its long Schubertian lea-in for clarinet, then the gently rocking ‘Wiegenlied’ and finally ‘Das Heimliche Lied’ with its gentle diminuendo.


Their expressive sweep and power is at odds with most of Spohr’s output, except perhaps the four – yes four – Clarinet Concertos he wrote, the very best (like No. 8 that Heifitz played) of his fifteen numbered and two un-numbered Violin Concertos and the very late Piano Sonata: another fragile masterpiece. Plessner’s clarinet was especially in evidence here, a rich creamy support for Mileham.


Arnold Cooke (1906-2005) was a gritty Hindemith pupil, like Walter Leigh a year his senior, killed at Tobruk in 1942. Cooke was luckier and wrote in his gnarled Yorkshire idiom like Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014) consistently to his death. He’s not known for songs.


Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) isn’t known for songs either, but he wrote a clutch early and late in his career, usually with a clarinet and wind instruments in hailing distance – in chipper Stravinskyesque pieces like Madame Noy, the wordless Rhapsody and Rout, from 1918-20 after being demobbed. These flow; as for others, they’re knotty, with strange figurations like the Two Nursery Songs of 1919-20 here. He did write an opera, The Olympians, and dramatic scena The Enchantress for Kathleen Ferrier, both around 1950. But you never associate him with song. He even said of his (partly lost) music for the contemporary The Tempest, that the singers might just be heard through the storm of the orchestra like intermittent shouts. Great.


These settings of Frances Cornford are melodically slant and lie strangely, powerfully on the voice, chipped at by the clarinet’s sonority.


‘The Ragwort’ is a flowing with a pert piano accompaniment and a clarinet supporting and chirruping at the voice. ‘The Dandelion’ we’re told is where a donkey was meant to lurk. With its more skirling clarinet intro and truculent alla marcia pattern with the soprano suddenly rampant above its stave, it showed Mileham’s particular affinity for this period of British mid-century song. She’s performed Walton’s Songs for the Lord Mayor’s Table (1962) on several occasions.


I’ve never heard of Terence Greaves, born 1933, but on the strength at least of these two songs from 1978 and 1971 he really should be as well known as minor composers from a previous generation celebrated primarily for songs, like Michael Head.


The John Clare setting of ‘Little Trotty Wagtail’ has some of the dart and spurt of its subject, but delicate and winsome too. ‘Belladonna’ from which the whole recital takes its name, is another thing altogether. Jacqueline Froom’s poem explores the nature of this poisonous Deadly Nightshade. It’s a strange tenebrous poem given an equally taut setting with a fine diminuendo at the end. Really thrilling and worth hearing again in the same recital.


Mozart’s very first Menuet K1 written at five might have had a helping hand form his father, but it’s still remarkable, fully developed in the gallant-classical earlylish classical style. Grunberg delighted in this simple regularity, cleanly delivered.


The late Menuet in D K355 from 1790, completed by his pupil Stadler – the Kochel number’s way off apparently. It’s an incredibly chromatic and powerful piece, up there with the two great stand-alone shorts, the Rondo in A K511 and the Adagio in B minor K540, and seems cut from the same off-kilter melancholy. Grunberg brings a tread and delicacy to this, so its self-interruptions – a four-note cat lighting down the keys – sharpens the interrogative feel of this deeply affecting piece.


Finally Mileham rendered that ambiguous aria from Do Giovanni, Elvira’s love-and-hate ‘In quali eccessi, o Numi.. Mi trade quel’ alma ingrate’, Basically she’s the only one who truly loves the thousand-rogering Don, and perhaps married to him Mileham tells us.


She wants vengeance for his cruelty, but loves him enough to want to save his soul – since she’s convinced he’s going to his grave soon. The volatility of this piece Mileham judges exactly right, the light-and-shade ambiguous love and fury more nuanced in Daponte’s words than usual, ad of course by Mozart. A rousing end to a gloriously rich vocal recital.