Concert Review

Song Recital
Peter Wilman (tenor) and Janine Smith (piano)
Lion Ballroom, Leominster
9 February 2014

An Espressivo promotion

Who’d be a Concert Promoter? Subject to the caprices of Fortune, to the whims of audiences, to the clashes of bookings by rival impresarios - and to the health and fitness of performers?

Indeed, who’d be a performing artist, dependent on the state of his or her instrument, especially when it is not, say, just a priceless violin that can be dropped as you stumble off a platform, or a piano inexpertly prepared by unknown hands and ears, but a strange set of organs and muscles inside you, subject to all the ailments and bugs that human flesh is heir to?

These potential woes coincided when Espressivo thought of a performance, in mid-winter, of the greatest of all song cycles, Schubert’s Winter Journey. A Good Ambitious Idea. Persuading an audience to make their own winter journey in the bleakness of a February Sunday afternoon is itself a test of optimism and determination. Qualities not lacking in Espressivo- and an audience of more than adequate size was in prospect when, at no notice at all, the singer took ill, and found his voice unable to face the challenge of twenty-four of the most challenging songs in the repertoire. (He, and Winterreise, will be back next season: Watch This Space).

Espressivo too were challenged - reluctant to stick “Performance cancelled due to illness” on their billboards, they added nimbleness of footwork to optimism and determination, in looking for substitute artists.

Tenors are rare enough beasts, anyway: to find one available “at extremely short notice”, and willing to step into the breach: and to find an accompanist - sorry, “Collaborative Artist” is the current job description - able and willing to partner a singer for the first time, in a programme that there was barely time to agree, let alone rehearse, is tribute enough to the promoter and to the two artists, who rose to the challenge magnificently. And in the event, a large enough audience had faith in the alternative offering, and were well rewarded.

Peter Wilman’s musical career started as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral. What is it about Gloucester - something in the air? - that produces so many fine musicians? Ivor Gurney, George Dyson, Herbert Howells, Herbert Sumsion, John Sanders, to name the first to come to mind.

Peter Wilman’s CV shows that he has not been short of engagements - all the more miraculous that he was available this time. In opera he has sung Tamino in Zauberflöte, Almaviva in The Barber, Tom in the Rake’s Progress, and roles in Janacek, Britten and Stockhausen, Berg and Kurt Weill.

As a recitalist, he has performed all Finzi’s works for tenor voice, and Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, so it was not surprising that on this occasion he included in the programme Finzi and Quilter as well as Beethoven and Schubert.

The pianist was not new to Lion audiences. Janine Smith, a product of the Birmingham Conservatoire, gave her debut recital in the Purcell Room, and was a finalist in the Young Accompanist of the Year competition. She teaches at the Elgar School of Music in Worcester, and in 2005 was invited to perform and give masterclasses at Kao-Hsiung University in Taiwan. As a concerto pianist she has played Chopin, Gershwin, and Mendelssohn, and she shows she has no problem at playing the notes even at very short notice! But she also has the quality essential to any fine accompanist - she has the art of listening.

So in a situation where everything was on the limit - singer and pianist new to each other, repertoire which there had been barely time to choose, let alone rehearse in depth, - adrenalin carried them both along, providing an extra dimension of challenge and excitement, and danger too, that added to the audience’s enjoyment, who quickly realized they could be sure of the technical competence of both performers.

Perhaps in the first group of songs - the first four of Schubert’s other great song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, - the excitement was a tad too evident. One realises that, over centuries, music has got faster, and gone up in pitch. But in this instance, the stream was not just a babbling brook, but more a torrent racing down the hillside, and the young man was hectic in pursuing it to the mill where he was to meet the miller’s daughter and fall tragically in love. Perhaps in old age your scribe is too inclined to caution, wanting more space in which to take breath - and avoid twisting an ankle before I’ve even come upon the girl!

Part of the pleasure of the afternoon was in not knowing what exactly was going to come next in the programme. Quilter is a much under-rated composer these days: a bit “old fashioned” even in 1908 when he wrote these Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, which on this occasion were all the more welcome for being less familiar than his settings of Shakespeare. What’s wrong with a lovely melody, unaffectedly and expertly fashioned?

By the end of the recital artists and audience were at one, and Peter Wilman showed us the operatic side of his voice and musicianship with some Viennese operetta – another world, like Quilter’s, lost to us. And, alas, the loss is all ours. But we can be glad we made this Winter Journey to a Leominster beset by floods, to enjoy music that gladdened and involved and enriched us with its own especial warmth.

Peter Williams

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