Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pokupić/Vignoles @ Wigmore Hall, London

13 September 2014

Across town from the Last Night of the Proms, with the Wigmore Hall 2014-15 season under way for a week now, Croatian mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupić and her accompanist Roger Vignoles offered a programme that ranged from German language repertoire in the first half to English and French fare after the interval.

In the opening Hugo Wolf group, the prayer Gebet was stately in its tempo and imbued with an apt sense of reverence which accentuated Pokupić’s richly timbred lower vocal range. Begegnung provided an immediate contrast with its nervously-laden narrative of a lover’s encounter the morning after the night before, the emotional predicament being laid bare by Pokupić as much through her hand gestures as her feeling for the text. Wolf thought his setting of Das verlassene Mägdlein bore reasonable comparison with that of Schumann, which he held in the highest esteem. With Vignoles articulating the sparse accompaniment with unerring clarity and Pokupić bringing pin-point accuracy to her German diction it was impossible not to feel the sense of despair Mörike paints around the narrator, a love- forsaken servant girl. Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens found Pokupić fully acting the part of a girl taken aback by the first realisation of love’s impact, so much so that an emotional release of breath at the end was felt necessary.

In Gustav Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder an empathy for the texts was apparent, as in Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft, which succeeded in capturing that essential element of breathy gossamer lightness of tone. For all Vignoles’ subtle urgings of tempo and scene-painting of mood with the accompaniments, the Rückert Lieder overall only just fell short of really catching the unity of refined sensibility Mahler identified within this chosen poet. The occasional lapsed articulation of a consonant from Pokupić subtly took away from the intended beauty of Liebst du um Schönheit, whilst in Um Mitternacht the transitions of dramatic stress appeared somewhat forced in a way that marred the textual flow. These were minor and momentary irritations and one felt with slightly more polishing these might have been ironed out: the proof of what might have been came with the final song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, which had rounded tone in Pokupić’s strong lower register and true identification with music and text in her phrasing, all neatly underlined by Roger Vignoles’ deeply felt and spacious accompaniment.

Gerald Finzi’s Let us garlands bring is a cycle of five songs to Shakespearian texts set between 1929 and 1942, when it was published as a seventieth birthday present for Ralph Vaughan Williams. The transition to singing in English was made to appear beguilingly simple by Renata Pokupić, but as any singer will tell you English is in fact one of the hardest languages to work with in song. Clarity of enunciation was for the most part again Pokupić’s trump card as she met the challenges of Shakespeare’s verse. Come away, death was delivered with a seriousness that never left the text moribund. Both artists delighted in the buoyant tempo and swift turns of phrase found in Who is Sylvia? A touch of the coquette entered into the performance of O mistress mine. However, perhaps the accompaniment became a touch too prominent in It was a lover and his lass to maintain ideal balance and a slight impulsiveness of voice production was felt in Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, albeit the final stanza being sung with an impressive other-worldly tone that wonderfully captured the deathly scene.

A selection of French chansons by Reynaldo Hahn rounded out the programme. A Chloris was nigh on perfect; if only the same could have been said for the realisation of François Coppée’s text in Mai, lost largely in blousy over-vocalisation. Quand je fus pris au pavillon brought matters back on course by succeeding in treading the fine line between pastiched innuendo and the indecency of the narrator being caught in the pavilion with a lover. A trio of texts by Paul Verlaine closed the selection. D’une prison caught the rapt and calm ambiance with ease, whilst L’heure exquise beguiled with its freely flowing and effortlessly floated tone. Fêtes galantes brought a touch of crowd-pleasing fun to end the evening with its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of baroque courtiers and their mandolin playing. A single encore followed, a refined reading of Brahms’ Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn, mein süßes Lieb.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.

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