Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Across the Pond: Songs with an American connection from Elizabeth Llewellyn and Jess Dandy

19 March 2023

A heady, creamy cocktail of vocal talent at the Wigmore Hall.

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn’s voice has been described elsewhere as ‘brandy and cream’, and this is spot on – it’s gloriously rich from her resonant chest voice to the notes well above the stave, yet it packs a punch, with, occasionally, just the hint of husky fruitiness. If the audience at Sunday’s Wigmore Hall concert left the building slightly tipsy, it is to be forgiven, as Jess Dandy’s sumptuous contralto (no neutral ‘mezzo’ for her) made for a double measure of the aforementioned heady cocktail. The only slight disappointment was that there was no duet to add the cherry on a stick to this delicious mix.

The cleverly selected programme of song linked composers from the turn of the 20th century via their American connections: Amy Beach was American by birth; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor travelled several times to the USA, and became heavily influenced by spirituals from the era of slavery; the Austria-Hungary born Erich Wolfgang Korngold emigrated to America where, as well as his ‘classical’ output, he gained fame as a Hollywood composer; Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in ‘the New World’ is well known. The whole was artfully stitched together with readings from letters and biographies (mostly from or about Coleridge-Taylor or his occasional librettist, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar) read – with geniality and neat changes in accents – by the actor Paterson Joseph.

Coleridge-Taylor’s music is coming back into fashion through his championship by ensembles such as Chineke!, and it’s about time. His chamber music, particularly, is beautifully crafted. There’s a backward look to his harmony: given that he was writing at the end of the 19th century, you might expect Coleridge-Taylor’s output to be heavily chromatic, but there’s a delicacy to his writing for small forces that brings to mind Schumann or Mendelssohn, and when it’s combined with melody lines drawn from spirituals, it makes for a charming fusion. The first group of songs by the composer came from his Op. 17 African Romances, and Llewellyn brought out all of this charm, whether from the tender ‘African love song’, the slow and intense ‘A prayer’ and ‘Dawn’ or the lilting drive of ‘How shall I woo thee?’.

Llewellyn’s rendering of the traditional spiritual Deep River was as nuanced and moving as you’d want: crammed with contrast of both dynamic and timbre (including some magnificently solid low notes).

If the audience at Sunday’s Wigmore Hall concert left the building slightly tipsy, it is to be forgiven…”

Llewellyn’s second half set was a selection of Korngold’s songs, and here we got the chromaticism (with even a hint of Modernism); once again, the material was delivered with a complete understanding of the mood of the text: a slight fuzzy fruitiness for the promise of Spring in Schneeglöckchen (snowdrops); a light touch for the busy, fleeting Ständchen; some well-judged rubato for the simple, rocking song to a child Liebesbriefchen.

Dvořák’s Op. 99 Biblical Songs were written in the USA, and, as you’d imagine, there’s more than a hint of sanctity (or possibly even sanctimony) to them. ‘Clouds and darkness’ and ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ both have a chantlike quality (albeit that the pastoral trills in the piano of the latter lighten the mood), to which Dandy applied a dark and intense lower register to impressive effect; the vocal drive over rippling piano of ‘I will sing a new song…’ was given full attention.

Amy Beach’s Three Browning Songs have a distinctly ‘bravura parlour song’ quality to them, and, as a set, they feel similar (one of them, perhaps as an encore, might suffice). They left us in no doubt, though, that Dandy has not only power and range (they’re more true mezzo songs than contralto), but subtlety too – such changes in texture as the songs allow, she highlighted with precision.

It fell to Dandy to deliver the second set of songs by Coleridge-Taylor, The Soul’s Expression (settings of four sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Here, the composer turns more towards chromaticism: three of the four are intense and a touch florid. They gave Dandy the chance, though, to demonstrate the liquid heft of her lower register, and for the pianist, Simon Lepper, to deliver some carefully considered Nachspielen.

Throughout, Lepper’s playing was immaculate, and there was genuine synergy between voices and instrument. Perhaps the only cavil might be that for his single solo item (‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ from Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodies), Lepper was somewhat buried in copy, something that, despite also performing from score, both singers managed to avoid.

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