Long, long ago people would wile away their Saturday nights with their own soiree, gathered round the drawing-room piano to sing wholesome, light-hearted ditties.
Now, however, informal vocal duets, rather like piano duets, have become obsolete.
In this Wigmore concert, one stop on an extensive European tour, Kate Royal and Christine Rice, along with their distinguished piano accompanist Roger Vignoles, made a triumphant challenge to received opinion. That they are two of this country’s finest singers, of course, lent credibility to their cause. It is a tried and tested partnership, already having performed to much acclaim at BBC Chamber Proms and at the Edinburgh Festival, and one that is perfectly balanced: Royal’s luxuriously glossy soprano tempered and steadied by Rice’s shaded and more muscular mezzo.
The concert presented an interesting range of repertoire, from the regal frigidity of a Purcell ode through to Rossini’s amorous longings, and in terms of both tone and pace, there was pleasing variety. Because of its structure, part one Anglo-Germanic, part two Franco-Italian, the programme seemed to become increasingly and delightfully relaxed as the evening wore on.
Perhaps the only anomaly was the first piece, Purcell’s ‘Sound the Trumpet’ from the birthday ode to Queen Mary Come ye Sons of Art, which was originally written for two counter-tenors: although the performance was technically faultless it sounded rather strident in the female voice. The slower airs ‘Lost is my quiet’ and ‘What can we poor females do?’ seemed far better suited, musically and texturally, to what followed.
With Mendelssohn the pair appeared to loosen up, and offered a beautiful rendition of ‘Abschiedslied der Zugvgel’, a nostalgic duet about the passing of summer, before separating to perform a clutch of solo songs. Although restrained in gesture, the pair always matched their delivery to the music, evident in the quick-fire rhythm of Brahms’ ‘Weg der Liebe I’ and the lyrical tenderness of the following ‘Weg der Liebe II’. They clearly relished the arch appeal of ‘Die Schwestern’ (We’re two lovely sisters, we have nut-brown hair) and ‘Walpurgisnacht’, a creepy tale about witchery, sung in jaunty paraphrase.
In the second half, Royal and Rice exploited the full beauty of their voices to great effect. Somehow Charles Gounod’s ‘Fleur des bois’, a pretty tour of woodland flora, and Ernest Chausson’s unashamedly indulgent ‘La Nuit’ require a slight sheen of sentimentality and suit the femininity of this duet form. It was Rossini, however, who proved the concert’s unexpected highlight. His song entitled ‘La pesca’ (‘Fishing’) was surprisingly moving and ‘La regatta veneziana’, a lusty number about a couple of gondoliers, was delivered with tasteful theatricality.
As this concert testified, Royal and Rice make a charismatic double-act, but more importantly offer a first-rate vocal partnership. Their two encores were justly deserved and eagerly encouraged.