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Sunday Afternoon in the Country

New York
Alice Tully Hall
12/09/2001 -  
Songs of Beethoven, Liszt, Vaughn Williams, Duparc, Ives, Rorem, Griffes, Beach and Sousa
Paul Groves (tenor)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
St. Lawrence String Quartet

As a conscious reaction to the horrors of the Boer War and World War I, a movement developed to pacify English music through the use of folk and pastoral themes. Musicians sought solace in tradition as the folk collections of Cecil Sharp and the revival of Morris dancing became popular. Pastoral poetry by A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy was set to music to emphasize the lost innocence of modern British society. Many composers participated in this groundswell including Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Rutland Boughton and Ivor Gurney. Examples of works from the pastoral (used as a specifically musical term and directly related to the flowering of the English renascence) include Elgar’s The Severn Suite and Holst’s Cotswold Symphony. A common element in the music of Delius, Holst, Finzi, Bridge, Moeran and Vaughn Williams is its wistful quality. It all seems to pine for a simpler time and place, manifesting this longing in evocations of “merrie olde England” and tunes of the countryside. Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, North Country Sketches, Brigg Fair, and A Village Romeo and Juliet are all pastoral settings. The instrumental music of Moeran uses folk song of both Ireland and England. Vaughn Williams’ third is his “Pastoral Symphony” but many of his unprogrammatic essays also conjure up rural and nostalgic elements. He wrote such pieces as A Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Sussex Folk-Tunes, Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”, Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, and the famous Fantasia on Greensleeves, a piece that epitomizes, through the character of Falstaff, the peculiarly English concept of the desirable combination of nostalgia for a time that never really existed with a romantic view of life in the provinces. Arguably Vaughn Williams’ most beautiful work is The Lark Ascending for violin and string orchestra. In this pastoral paean the solo instrument imitates the lovely song of the lark and drifts further and further upward each time that it appears. Its ascension to heaven, reminiscent of the violin solo in the second movement of Brahms’ Symphony #1, beautifully embodies man’s longing for a natural state which will bring him ultimately to the kingdom of God.

In an interesting departure from the traditional song recital format, American tenor Paul Groves invited the St. Lawrence String Quartet to join him and his accompanist Malcolm Martineau in a presentation of a cycle of songs to texts by Housman. Vaughn Williams’ On Wenlock Edge expands on the form originally employed by Parry for his English Lyrics. The addition of the strings allows the composer to expand his palette to include colors of the spiritual, and even supernatural, world (VW later orchestrated the entire cycle for large ensemble). Mr. Groves has a very powerful voice and has learned to employ it expertly. He ran both the emotional and tessitura distances with no apparent strain, singing in two different voices for the dialogue between dead and living in “Is my team ploughing?”, matching the eerie cello undercurrent with his own splendid characterizations (compare Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s “Channel Firing”). The grouping as a whole was a thrilling compendium of mood pictures, Mr. Groves’ “Bredon Hill” especially poignant.

The young tenor had no troubles in filling the hall with his magnificent sound. After a stirring Adelaide showed off his prodigious range, a series of early and rare songs of Liszt, written before his transformation from sinner to saint, proved to be the most interesting nuggets of the afternoon. These light and airy French miniatures, taken from Hugo, recall the world of Bellini, complete with high notes reminiscent of Vieni fra queste braccia, which Mr. Groves navigated expertly with not even a whisper of falsetto. From obscure songs of a famous composer to popular ones of a little known artist, Groves included a set of Duparc which, in their Wagnerian harmonies, sounded more like one’s fantasy of what a Liszt tune should contain. Throughout these two sections, the voice was always controlled but intense, warm and expansive. This is an instrument to cherish.

Singing his program in four different languages (one of the Liszt encores was in Italian), Mr. Groves was most entertaining in his native English. His intelligent selection of American songs was the most enjoyable part of the program, as he put over the two Ives ditties (a word that the composer himself would have used as an exclamation of praise), The Greatest Man and Memories, with just the right combination of good humor and comfortable colloquialism (for a real treat, seek out the historical CD’s with Ives’ own raspy versions of these songs). Mr. Groves communicated a deep sense of love and loss in the Rorem setting of The Land of Fear, a misty portrayal of time past in Griffes’ By a lonely forest pathway and a stirringly powerful sense of classic beauty and grace in Mrs. Beach’s Ah, Love but a day. What was perhaps most impressive in this lieder recital was that the young opera singer consistently resisted the temptation to overvocalize like a character on the stage of the musical theater, a habit which usually is the Achilles’ heel of budding songsters in high profile solo performances. Only in the very last piece, Sousa’s Reveille, was there the sense, proper for this refugee from the world of operetta, that the singer had slipped naturally into the pear-shaped roar of the greasepaint. Provided throughout with steady grounding by Mr. Martineau (who, by the way, was allowed to take the first solo bow at the conclusion of the proceedings), the tenor scored a significant triumph at his first major opportunity. Already a contest winner at the Metropolitan, he seems on his way to a strong and healthy career. Especially considering the unusual repertoire, this was the most satisfying song recital that I have attended for quite some time. Perhaps, in future, there will be another meaning for cognoscenti when they rhapsodize about “the new Groves”.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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