REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on University of York Song Day, 19/2/2022

Christopher Glynn: Put together the University of York Song Day. Picture: Gerard Collett

University of York Song Day, National Centre for Early Music & Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York, February 19

IT fell to Christopher Glynn to put together this year’s University Song Day. He was an excellent choice.

He is of course well known in Yorkshire for his fine stewardship of the Ryedale Festival. But it was also good to have a full-time accompanist of his calibre presiding. His intelligent, always distinctive contributions from the keyboard were the linchpin of the day.

It was in three parts. At lunchtime, A Shakespeare Songbook attracted the talents of soprano Rowan Pierce and tenor Ed Lyon. In the afternoon, outstanding mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge offered advice to five university students in a masterclass.

In the evening, now transplanted to the Lyons, Pierce and Rudge were joined by up-and-coming soprano Siân Dicker in a programme of Richard Strauss lieder stretching over nearly 80 years of his life.

Shakespeare has almost certainly inspired more musical settings than any other poet. Most are taken from the plays, although the sonnets account for a fair number. Here we dipped into five plays and two sonnets, with Shakespeare In Love to start and finish. There were several unexpected delights.

Soprano Rowan Pierce: “Sinister and sprightly in Tippett’s Songs For Ariel”

Arne’s setting of When Daisies Pied (from Love’s Labours Lost) with echoing cuckoo, daintily given by Pierce, was beautifully enhanced by Glynn’s ornamentation. His pacing of the prelude to Haydn’s She Never Told Her Love (Twelfth Night) was tellingly spacious.

Sylvia’s Charms (Two Gentlemen Of Verona), as imagined by Schubert, were boldly extolled by Lyon, before he turned to Julius Harrison’s much less-known setting of Oberon’s I Know A Bank (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which was complemented by the fairies’ invocation from the same play, You Spotted Snakes, given by Pierce. Both singers proved Harrison an adept watercolourist.

Michael Head is another underestimated song composer, as heard in Pierce’s account of How Sweet The Moonlight Sleeps (Merchant Of Venice), where pianissimo drew in the listener and the piano twinkled with golden sheen.

Lyon brought terrific gusto to Quilter’s setting of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind (As You Like It), which happened to coincide with snow falling outside, visible through a window of St Margaret’s. We felt the poetry’s chill.

This was signal for a calmer interlude, the duet from Handel’s L’Allegro, As Steals The Morn, which adapts words from The Tempest; it was affectionately delivered. Pierce was both sinister and sprightly in Tippett’s Songs For Ariel, uncovering much of their magic. Similarly, Lyon plumbed the Clown’s infinite sadness in Come Away, Death (Twelfth Night), which was tightly controlled by voice and piano alike.

Tenor Ed Lyon: “Plumbed the Clown’s infinite sadness in Come Away, Death”. Picture: Gerard Collett

Roxanna Panufnik has set three Shakespeare sonnets. Mine Eye treats the words of Sonnet XXIV with utmost care, as did Pierce here. The world premiere of Kim Porter’s duet-setting of Sonnet CXVI made a worthy and equally pleasing companion to it, gentle at its heart, with trickling piano, before building to a triumphal finish.

Both singers relished the challenge of Vaughan Williams’s Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun (Cymbeline), taking a lead from Glynn’s ever-astute handling of the keyboard. The event was a welcome – and powerful – reminder of the rich treasury that is English song.

Devoted as it was entirely to the songs of Richard Strauss, the evening was almost too much of a good thing. Strauss was virtually besotted with the soprano voice in all its guises – he even married a diva – so the presence here of two sopranos and a mezzo was ideal. They exhibited a contrast in styles which added to the excitement.

Here, more than ever, Christopher Glynn was called upon to exercise his skills to the utmost. He never faltered. Indeed, the powerful, scented aromas that these songs generated owed a huge amount to the colours in his palette.

At every step of the way he simplified the singers’ task. Rowan Pierce opened the evening with the six-year-old Strauss’s cute Weihnachtslied (Christmas Carol), before a peppy, vivid Begegnung (Meeting) and a not quite dreamy enough account of Rote Rosen (Red Roses).

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge: “Capturing the nervous essence of young love”

Later there was a lovely transition in Schlechtes Wetter (Filthy Weather), where voice and piano together melted into the waltz, leaving behind the bad mood of wind and rain and conjuring the dance in their place.

Kathryn Rudge began with three songs from Op 10, composed in 1894 and his first to be published. She entered straight into the mood of Zueignung (Dedication), giving its powerful melody a strong line. She never let our attention wander after that either.

Glynn brought bold colourings to Nichts (Nothing), which she amplified, before a wonderfully contemplative Die Nacht (Night), calm, hovering, treasuring the moment. It was a gem.

She later returned with Schlagende Herzen (Beating hearts), capturing the nervous essence of young love with its repeated ‘kling-klangs’. There was no doubt about the depth of her feeling in Sehnsucht (Yearning), and her approach to the final word, Paradise, at the end of Das Rosenband (Rose Garland) was exquisite, once again making time stand still.

These were the work of a singer in her prime, one who knows exactly how to hold an audience in thrall. Spellbinding stuff, the voice beautifully focused throughout its range, right to the very top.

Sian Dicker: “At her best when she did not have to restrain her inner Brunnhilde”. Picture: Benjamin Ealovega 

Sián Dicker’s opening set came from Op 27, composed in 1894. She was at her best when she did not have to restrain her inner Brunnhilde. Ruhe Meine Seele (Rest My Soul) exploded into distress before neatly calming down.

Anticipated ecstasy bubbled through Heimliche Aufforderung (Secret Invitation), before her most controlled singing of the evening in Morgen! (Tomorrow), in which she took inspiration from Glynn’s gently modulated prelude (echoed in his postlude).

She was also given the honour of performing the Four Last Songs, which Strauss wrote in 1948, a year before his death. In Frühling (Spring) she developed terrific resonance at its heart but also revealed a recurring tendency to widen her vibrato when she pushed the tone too hard.

The urgency at the start of the last stanza on Beim Schlafengehen (Going To Sleep) was well judged but it needed to be followed by greater inwardness, the kind she found at the end of the final song. All the while, Glynn was achieving little miracles at the keyboard, larks trilling in the twilight, for example, before another eloquent postlude.

The three singers signed off with the trio from the end of Der Rosenkavalier, Hab’ mir’s Gelobt (I Made A Vow), when the Marschallin bows out, leaving Octavian and Sophie to each other. It was beautifully, even touchingly, done and crystalised the heady perfumes that all four musicians had concocted throughout the evening.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Solem Quartet & Friends, Ryedale Festival Finale

Solem Quartet: “A fitting close to two deeply satisfying weeks”

Ryedale Festival Finale: Solem Quartet & Friends, Hovingham Hall, Hovingham, July 31

AFTER including four Schubert events over its opening weekend, Ryedale Festival closed with three substantial Schubert offerings over its final two days. His ever-popular Octet was the last event on this programme, following two pieces by the American composer Florence Price.

Alhough she died nearly 70 years ago, Price has only really come to prominence in the past decade, after the chance discovery of a cache of her scores. Summer Moon, composed in 1938, was among them. Its pastel shades are well adapted to string quartet and generated an elegiac aura.

Her variations on “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” proved equally appealing, evolving naturally and showing more than mere craftsmanship in their modulations. These tasters suggested that she deserves to be better known by British audiences.

So to the Schubert. The Solem’s first violin, Amy Tress, led the proceedings most effectively. The extra instruments – clarinet, bassoon, horn and double bass – added more than the expected resonance and took some adjustment: double bass and horn, although expertly handled, sounded boomy and over-exuberant respectively in the Allegro.

Things settled down, however, in the slow movement, which was allowed to breathe, with cool ensemble over the long dominant pedal and pregnant pauses before the coda.

Brio in the scherzo was nicely complemented by a smooth trio. In the succeeding variations, Stephanie Tress’s cello sang engagingly in the main melody and the whole ensemble ruminated gently thereafter. The minuet really danced and its trio had the lightness of a Viennese pastry.

In the finale, the return of the opening material might have been a touch more menacing, but the acceleration to the end was genuinely exciting. A fitting close to two deeply satisfying weeks: Christopher Glynn and his cohorts deserve the utmost praise for assembling them and in next to no time.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Mishka Rushdie Momen, Ryedale Festival, 30/7/21

Mishka Rushdie Momen: “Thirty years old next year, but showing the wisdom and musicality of one twice her age”

Ryedale Festival: Young Artist Day, Mishka Rushdie Momen, All Saints, Hovingham, July 30

SUPERLATIVES are always dangerous, but this morning event was one of the most satisfying piano recitals I have ever had the privilege of attending.

Partly it was the range of repertory covered in not much more than one hour: Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Ligeti and Schubert. But most of all it was the sheer brilliance of this young pianist, 30 years old next year, but showing the wisdom and musicality of one twice her age.

Mishka – she too, like others at this festival, will surely forever be recognisable by her first name alone – hinged her programme on fantasias by Mozart and Schubert, the one in C minor, the other in C major.

But she began with Bach’s C major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of The Well-tempered Clavier, a piece beloved of almost every would-be pianist. The prelude was impeccably smooth, whereas the fugue was notable for its unexpected drama.

In Mozart’s Fantasia, it was if there were an ogre prowling in the bass. Its first appearance was aggressive, but its anger gradually softened until it was tamed into a mere growl. Metaphors aside, Mishka drew marked but subtle contrasts between the work’s intense and melodic poles.

Schumann’s Impromptus On A Romance Of Clara Wieck takes a theme she had sent him and develops it into nine variations (in the revised version of 1850, ten years after they were married). Mishka did much more than merely highlight the two facets of Schumann’s character, poetic and impulsive, and she delivered an exceptionally tender postlude. It all made a pleasing interlude.

The fleeting magic of Ligeti’s Tenth Étude, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was used as introduction to an unforgettable account of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. John Warrack’s typically urbane programme-note referred to this as “a seminal masterpiece”. It is indeed an Everest of the repertoire, not lightly undertaken. That the whole piece, over an unbroken 20 minutes, is built around a dactylic rhythm makes it all the more remarkable, on a par with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and equally symphonic.

Mishka’s vision encompassed the whole work. She opened boldly, holding nothing back. So the second theme sounded all the more tender by contrast, a haven of peace before it was interrupted. She even made something of Schubert’s bridge – little more than a doodle, in truth – leading into the Adagio, which at first had the solemnity of a funeral march. As the bass became much more active, she still sustained a beautifully controlled line in the right hand.

The sheer theatre of the Scherzo was enhanced by the rapid downward ripples of her left hand, which were frankly breath-taking. The final fugue was sternly enunciated but still unfolded with incredible clarity.

By now hearts were in mouths at her Olympian virtuosity. With eyes closed, I would have sworn I was listening to Alfred Brendel with a feminine touch. And she still had enough left in the tank for an eloquent encore, which I took to be Schubert’s Hungarian melody in B minor. This young lady is thrillingly talented. Ryedale must have her back – soon.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Tenebrae, Ryedale Festival, 29/7/2021

Tenebrae: “Remains one of the best in the business”. Picture: Sim Canetty Clarke

Ryedale Festival: Tenebrae, Renaissance Glories, Ampleforth Abbey, July 29

TENEBRAE is observing its 20th anniversary this year and no doubt relishing the opportunity for a real celebration at last.

Nigel Short’s crack choir, here numbering 11 singers, chose music of mourning from the heart of the Renaissance: from Spain, Tomás Luis de Victoria and his slightly younger contemporary Alonso Lobo, with Gregorio Allegri’s incomparable Miserere representing Italy of a generation later.

Lobo’s six-voice Versa Est In Luctum (‘My harp is tuned to mourning’) is one of the most moving motets of the period. Its prayerful progression from full-on minor, almost wallowing in self-pity, to something approaching the major key and positivity, speaks of hope finding a way out of adversity. Certainly Tenebrae managed this transition with smooth conviction.

Allegri’s Miserere is a setting of Psalm 51. For it to build up the necessary tension before its sacrificial dénouement, it demands to be sung in its entirety. Sadly, on this occasion, it was limited to a mere three of the famous high Cs, plus the epilogue.

No doubt it was thought that the complete work would make the concert too long, given that there was to be no interval. It seemed to finish just as it was getting going, although it was clean enough. But an alternative work would have been preferable. 

By far the evening’s most substantial piece was Victoria’s Requiem Mass. It was a surprise, although perfectly acceptable, that all the plainsong incipits were sung by female voices. Nigel Short paid immense attention to detail throughout.

In the Introit, where the sopranos spend a good deal of time on the dominant (the fifth note of the scale), he developed a notable urgency in the inner voices. He was also at pains to differentiate the varied entries in the Kyrie. In the Offertory, perhaps the most purely Spanish-sounding of all the sections, he dissolved tension with several melting cadences.

During the Sanctus and Benedictus the voices sounded as if three times their actual number, although tuning remained impeccable and ensemble shapely. In the final section, Lux Aeterna, Short picked out the phrase ‘quia pius es’ (translated here as ‘because thou art merciful’) for special treatment, while building up the overall intensity.

It would have been a masterful performance, but for one shortcoming: the diction. Words were rarely anywhere close to clear enough. The same problem afflicted the extraordinary encore, a setting of Flanders & Swann’s Slow Train – which really had no place here.

Some of its stations were apparently localised, but they disappeared without trace, under-projected. A lively Byrd motet might have been more appropriate. Even so, Tenebrae remains one of the best in the business.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Coco Tomita & Simon Callaghan, Ryedale Festival

Coco Tomita and Simon Callaghan: “A duo that seems bound to endure”

Ryedale Festival: Coco Tomita & Simon Callaghan, Duncombe Park, July 28

MORNING concerts are always a special treat at Ryedale and this one was no exception. Coco Tomita won the strings section of the BBC Young Musician competition last year and is still in her teens, but in her programme of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Poulenc, she combined the enthusiasm of youth with a maturity well beyond her years. Simon Callaghan was her ardent piano partner; they were well matched.

Callaghan’s staccato piano in the opening movement of Mozart’s F major Violin Sonata, K.376 underlined Tomita’s rhythmic zest, which she tempered in the unusually restrained development section.

She did not hog the spotlight either in the Andante, content to accompany when needed. The pair were well attuned to Mozart’s wit in the finale, with its rapidly changing colours and false endings.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, which was inspired by Brailovo, the estate of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, marked a complete change of mood. Its opening Méditation, in D minor, has a melody that Callaghan enunciated boldly in the extended piano prologue, before Coco mined its pathos to the full, with some notably sweet tone at the top of the range.

The moto perpetuo Scherzo, also in the minor, was balanced with a smooth major-key Trio, before the famous salon-style tune in the closing Mélodie – closely related to several Elgar pieces in similar style – was given tasteful treatment. Here the duo could have afforded to be a little more expansive.

Poulenc had notorious difficulties in composing his Violin Sonata, discarding two attempts before settling on this one from 1943. It has – for him – a deeply romantic melody in the opening Allegro Con Fuoco, in which Coco was suitably soulful, but there was little she could do about the later nervy passages that cast it adrift.

The low-lying Intermezzo found her developing a lovely line and an intriguing dialogue with the piano. The will-o’-the-wisp finale was pure Poulenc, with the two instruments chasing each other in and around several changes in tempo.

Their Debussy encore was equally stylish. This is a duo that seems bound to endure – and Coco is set fair to be another young performer who needs only a single name.

 Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Isata Kanneh-Mason at Ryedale Festival, 25/7/21

Isata Kanneh-Mason: “There is considerable brainpower behind Isata’s virtuosity. All she needs now is to step back a little from signposting what composers are saying,” opines Martin Dreyer. Picture: Robin Clewley

Ryedale Festival: Isata Kanneh-Mason, Duncombe Park, Helmsley, July 25

MANY of us first encountered Isata (‘Eye-suh-tuh’) at Ryedale three summers ago when she made a powerful impression partnering her cello-playing brother, Sheku, at Castle Howard.

Still only 25, she is striking out more and more as a solo pianist. This was the second, late-afternoon programme she gave at Duncombe Park, with sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven framing a Chopin ballade and Gubaidulina’s Chaconne.

Mozart’s Sonata K.457 in C minor dates from 1784 and was written only three weeks before the ‘Hunt’ string quartet. It was published with the Fantasia in the same key, which fascinatingly was given later in the festival.

Its key often denotes passion in Mozart, so Isata was entirely within her rights to hammer out the opening arpeggio, not least because it forms the basis for the whole development section. But she positively melted into the major-key second theme, a lovely contrast.

There was much delicately delayed ornamentation in the slow movement, which allowed its melody to glow, reminding us of Beethoven’s allusion to it in his Pathétique sonata. Although she did not shirk the anger in the finale, she tempered it with regret by allowing it to breathe when rests allowed.

The temperate opening of Chopin’s Second Ballade belied the thunder to come. Here we had no mere storm, more of a hurricane. She generated huge power, especially in her left hand, and did not hold back.

Gubaidulina’s substantial score, full of dark colours, often demands a heavy bass line against rapid passagework in the right hand: Isata was equal to every challenge. But when tenderness was needed – the composer’s much-lauded “spiritual renewal” – her fingers twinkled over the keys. We could have done with a touch more of such subtlety.

 She attacked Beethoven’s First Sonata, in F minor, with its “skyrocket” theme echoing the opening of the Mozart, with considerable panache, but rather more aggressively than a hall this size really warranted. Still, her adrenalin was surely flowing freely and she was nothing if not bursting with ideas.

At least in the Adagio there was genuine serenity and almost the only sustained pianissimo of the programme. There were clean, crisp contrasts in the minuet and trio and dazzling motor-rhythm in the lightning finale.

There is considerable brainpower behind Isata’s virtuosity. All she needs now is to step back a little from signposting what composers are saying and allow her audience’s imagination freer rein.  But it was good to have her back.                                                                                                            

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Abel Selaocoe/Jess Gillam, Ryedale Festival

Abel Selaocoe: “Vivid imagination is more than matched by the versatility with which he puts it into play”

Ryedale Festival: Abel Selaocoe, Birdsall House, Birdsall; Jess Gillam Ensemble, St Peter’s, Norton, both July 22

THURSDAY brought two of the musical world’s most engaging characters to Ryedale. Say the name “Abel”and you can only mean the cellist Abel Selaocoe. Similarly with “Jess”, which has to be saxophonist Jess Gillam.

Both are early in their careers, have rocketed to fame and are setting new trends. Essentially this means that you go to hear them, rather than looking to see what they intend to play. So the music becomes less important than the musician. Nothing wrong with that.

Abel’s appearance in the morning covered a whole gamut of genres, crossing boundaries with the flick of a bow. He is a man whose vivid imagination is more than matched by the versatility with which he puts it into play.

He began and ended with improvisations strongly flavoured by his South African background – singing, Sprechgesang, growling throat-song, Xhosa clicks and, yes, cello, including percussive effects. He constantly surprises, which is all part of the fun.

But he also played two movements from a Bach solo suite, which were frankly mesmerising. He threw in plenty of rubato, but it all seemed to fit. Bach would have loved it.

Elsewhere he was gamely supported by the piano of Benjamin Powell, as in Macmillan’s Kiss On Wood, where the early dissonances dissolved into an ethereal contemplation, exactly as they should in a piece inspired by the Good Friday versicle Ecce Lignum Crucis.

Shchedrin’s In The Style Of Albéniz was well geared to Abel’s flashier side and none the worse for that. We could sit back and admire his – and Powell’s – virtuosity. There really seemed to be something of the Spaniard in them both.

Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio may be becoming a little hackneyed but it is always a tear-jerker when played like this, soulful and plaintive at its close. It just proved once again what a chameleon Abel is. You cannot but be inspired by his enthusiasm.

Jess Gillam: “Used a soprano saxophone, which sounded much like a full-bodied clarinet since she used no vibrato”. Picture: Robin Clewley

In her evening appearance, Jess was joined by seven other musicians – a string quintet (including double bass), a xylophonist doubling on marimba, Elsa Bradley, and a pianist, Leif Kaner-Lidström. For almost the whole programme, she used a soprano saxophone, which sounded much like a full-bodied clarinet since she used no vibrato.

In an arrangement of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, with the five strings in support, she delivered a gorgeous slow movement, its long lines yielding easily to her breath control, and was contrastingly sprightly in the finale. John Harle’s Flare was an exciting compendium of sax effects (Harle was a player himself), which involved the ensemble in clapping, alongside frenetic whirls and cross-rhythms.

She had set the scene with a Meredith Monk solo, Early Morning Melody, evoking sunrise. Elsewhere she seemed to be in thrall to minimalism. No harm in a little Philip Glass – here a piece intended for saxophone, Melody No 10. One or two other works were pale imitations that verged on “easy listening”.

 Bjork’s gently jazzy Venus As A Boy was pleasing. Jess reserved most of her true personality until the end. In an arrangement of Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, she first rocketed around the spectrum, then turned wistful and lilting, before a no-holds-barred ending that screeched erotically.

A little more of this kind of variety might have enlivened the programme still further. But she picks her support wisely: they shadowed her every step of the way.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Violins of the OAE, Hovingham Hall, Ryedale Festival, 21/7/2021

Kati Debretzeni: “She sounded as if there were at least three of her”

Ryedale Festival: Violins of the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, Hovingham Hall, Hovingham, July 21

ONE of the benefits of the pandemic – there have not been many – is the rethinking it has brought about. Social distancing makes it impossible for the entire Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment (OAE) to take the stage together. So the eight violins have decided to break out and do their own thing.

This was the second of two Baroque concerts they gave in the receptive acoustic of Hovingham’s old riding stables. All eight opened boldly in a Telemann concerto with four solo roles, making the most of the dissonance in the slow movements and adding really crisp rhythms to the powerful unison that opened the finale.

Thereafter, we enjoyed smaller groupings. Kati Debretzeni appeared on her own in an improvisation (Passaggio Rotto) and fantasia in A minor by Nicola Matteis the elder, who settled in England in the 1670s. Carefree in the first part, she was so brilliantly in command of the advanced techniques in the second that she sounded as if there were at least three of her.

After a dance-like start, Dan Edgar and Claire Holden engaged in much jocular dialogue in Telemann’s ‘Gulliver’ Suite in D, regularly changing tempos on the spur of the moment. The prelude to Bach’s third partita for solo violin made an engaging arrangement for a foursome, also highly conversational.

Even more exciting was the first movement of his ‘Italian’ concerto, in a wonderful arrangement for a quartet whose shading was masterly.

The sudden tempo changes in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon Duodecimi Toni, written for two brass choirs, worked well in this building, although without quite the bite of the original. But the blend was impeccable. A threesome by Joseph Fux was well crafted, as you might expect from him, its suspensions a little forced, but the voices dovetailed neatly in its finale.

Finally, another concerto by Telemann, this time for only four players, brought some magical pianissimos, almost prefiguring Mendelssohn’s fairy music. The sheer panache and enjoyment of these players was a tonic throughout the evening.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Albion String Band/Hannah Roberts, Ryedale Festival, 19/7/2021

Albion String Quartet: Five concerts in one long weekend at 2021 Ryedale Festival

Ryedale Festival: Albion String Quartet/Hannah Roberts, St Olave’s Church, York, July 19

THE Albions spent a long weekend in residence for the festival’s opening, giving no less than five concerts. Three of these involved Schubert’s String Quintet in C, the last of them a mid-morning event marking the festival’s only venture into York this year.

They could hardly have chosen a better second cellist than Hannah Roberts: she blended superbly right from the start, while making her presence felt, the perfect combination. The proof here lay in the way all five voices jointly swelled and subsided, as if breathing together.

For many, this extraordinary work is a pinnacle of western music. What makes it additionally remarkable is that it came from the pen of a man who knew his end was near. So many of its apparently unruffled surfaces crack under the strain of this knowledge. It rarely settles – and is unsettling for the listener despite its many charms. For a performance to succeed, it needs to be uncomfortable.

Second cellist Hannah Roberts: “Blended superbly right from the start”

The heart of the work is its Adagio. Its outer sections hover, as the three central voices barely move and the outer two offer plucked comments; these at first lacked definition. After the bleak diversion into the minor key, first violin and second cello were much more distinct in their wanderings and we were transported into another world. It was a telling moment.

The first movement had gained urgency on the repeat of the exposition, and this was nicely sustained throughout the development. The attacks in the Scherzo gave it delightfully rustic implications, heightening the contrast with its ghostly Trio.

In the finale, all bright and cheery on the surface, we were made aware of the sinister implications of the last two notes. Indeed, the whole performance struck a superb balance between the light and the dark that pervades this incomparable score: a rewarding experience.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Ryedale Festival, 17/7/2021

Carolyn Sampson: Ryedale Festival concert was “Elysium indeed, however you define it”. Picture: Marco Borggeve

Ryedale Festival: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, St Peter and St Paul Church, Pickering, July 17

THE name Elysium covers a multitude of … well, pleasures. To the ancient Greeks, it was where the blessed, especially heroes, decamped after death. For the rest of us, it means paradise, with a small or large ‘p’.

Either way, it was the umbrella for soprano Carolyn Sampson’s late-night Schubert recital; she had also given it in the afternoon. Joseph Middleton was her piano partner, a top-notch combination. How typical of artistic director Christopher Glynn to bring in big names right at the start of the festival.

Schubert had a Damoclean sword of disease hanging over the last third of his life, so thoughts of the afterlife cannot have been far from his mind. Perhaps, like the young nun, he looked forward to peace after life’s storms, exquisitely encapsulated in Sampson’s pianissimo Alleluias at the end of Die Junge Nonne, without vibrato.

There again, Elysium is doubtless a place of endless melody, prefigured by Goethe’s Ganymede, where little tunes keep bursting out as he soars upward and we felt his excitement at what lay ahead.

Romantic poets often use moon and stars as stand-ins for heavenly realms. The opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata colours the setting of Holty’s first An Den Mond (To The Moon). There is melancholy, too, in Goethe’s poem of the same name. Both here conveyed the idea of the voice as the reflection of the soul.

The brisker dactyls of Die Sterne (The Stars) showed a happier side to starlight, contrasting with the wonderful stillness this duo delivered in Nacht Und Träume’ (Night And Dreams) where moonlight gleams gently. There was a wonderful delicacy in Sampson’s tone for Der Liebliche Stern (The Lovely Star), tinged with sadness as the star contemplated its own reflection.

There was sunlight in the programme too. In Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen (To Be Sung On The Water), it glinted on the waters of Middleton’s piano, eventually evoking escape from the passage of time.

A thrillingly rapid account of Der Musensohn (The Son Of The Muses) really danced with glee. In total contrast, Du Bist Die Ruh (You Are Peace) was consummately sustained by Sampson. Similarly, Middleton had tinted in little details of the nightingale’s twitterings with delicacy.

So to Schubert’s setting of Schiller’s Elysium, virtually a cantata, where rapid changes of mood require a chameleon-like approach. This duo was more than equal to its demands: light and shade, sun and storm and eventually an endless wedding feast, a heaven to die for, certainly.

Even more of a rarity was Schubert’s only song as a melodrama, Abschied Von Der Erde (Farewell To The World), given as an encore – pure delight, and filled with the reconciliation the composer undoubtedly achieved near his end. Elysium indeed, however you define it.

Review by Martin Dreyer