Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Beth Taylor / Julius Drake review – Wigmore quality in the North

11 March 2024

The Holy Trinity Church, Ripon hosts a duo consisting of one seasoned and one emerging talent.

Julius Drake & Beth Taylor

Julius Drake & Beth Taylor (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

“I don’t know if this one’s on your radar, but Beth Taylor is sensational!”. Thus a colleague after hearing her as the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas at the Barbican. Given that he knows his stuff, we hastened to arrange a visit to this beautiful little church with its serene, spacious acoustic, in order to hear this young singer who is already embarked upon a stellar career. That her accompanist was Julius Drake was obviously an added incentive. We were not disappointed.

This is clearly a partnership which has developed into that platform intimacy which only those who genuinely cherish the art of Lieder can achieve. The programme was resolutely serious – kudos to Ms Taylor and Mr Drake for the absence of any lollipops, and the concentration on some of the central works in the repertoire.

Four of Brahms’ greatest songs introduced the recital, as Drake remarked, “that means four of the greatest songs by anyone”, and Ms Taylor was immediately at one with the poems and music. Hers might be described as an ‘old fashioned’ voice, in the best sense of the term – a friend remarked that hearing her sing was like listening to a recording made many years ago. The voice is mellow, resonant and warm in tone, perhaps recalling Marian Anderson with a hint of Kathleen Ferrier. Mezzo-sopranos with both low contralto notes and secure soprano ones are not exactly frequent these days, and that alone would mark her out, but to this she adds exceptional word sensitivity and a naturally engaging platform manner.

“…a partnership which has developed into that platform intimacy which only those who genuinely cherish the art of Lieder can achieve”

‘An eine Äolsharfe’ would be an ambitious opening for any singer, but this did not daunt Ms Taylor. Mörike’s poem is a reflection on the death of his brother, and the lines about the ‘Frisch grünenden Hügel’ under which the beloved lies, and the fragrance of the spring flowers which tear at the heart, were sung and played with great sensitivity. ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ is an equally challenging song, the first bars’ melancholy B minor melody demanding much from the pianist, just as the passionate ending asks a great deal from the singer: both Taylor and Drake were triumphant here, with ‘Unsere Liebe muss ewig bestehn!’ ringing out with fervour.

Frauenliebe und Leben is one of Schumann’s most beloved works, and here it was given a straightforward, sympathetic reading, free of undue mawkishness yet acknowledging the speaker’s enraptured feelings. Schumann marked one of the songs ‘Mit Leidenschaft’, (with passion) and he would surely have approved of the singing and playing here. The contrast between the joy of ‘Süsser Freund’ and the desolation of ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ was very moving, and Drake’s playing of the heart-rending nachspiel was haunting.

Taylor had plenty of opportunity to display her dramatic ability in songs by Hamilton Harty and Britten, most strongly in ‘Sea Wrack’ where her low notes were steady and resonant. Britten’s arrangement of Thomas Moore’s poem ‘Sail on, sail on’ allowed Drake to display his evocative depiction of gently rolling waves. Elgar’s Sea Pictures demands much, and this performance was as dramatic as could be desired, especially in the setting of the somewhat overblown poem ‘The Swimmer’, with its thunderous conclusion in which the pianist has to almost become an orchestra.

This was an outstanding recital in a welcoming setting, and those of us fortunate to live within a short distance of this lovely little Cathedral city have many more delights in store, provided by the enterprising and enthusiastic efforts of the Ripon Concerts Society and the St Cecilia Orchestra.

• For more information, visit riponconcerts.co.uk and st-cecilia.co.uk.

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Beth Taylor / Julius Drake review – Wigmore quality in the North