Gurney – By a Bierside , Captain Stratton’s Fancy, Sleep Mary Taylor – Eight Songs of Edward Thomas (excerpts) Ian Venables – Midnight Lamentation, Flying Crooked Finzi– Earth and Air and Rain (excerpts)
The young Australian baritone, Michael Lampard has already acquired a significant operatic and concert pedigree, not just in his native land but also in Europe, China, Japan and the USA. His website records a large repertoire and among the extensive list of songs I noted a significant number of English song cycles and individual songs. He gave this recital to celebrate the recent 60th birthday of composer Ian Venables.
Two things should be said at the outset. Firstly, it is inevitable that when discussing a song recital the main focus of comment tends to be the singer. So it’s important to say that throughout this recital the pianism of Patrick Hemmerle was first rate. He had some challenging music to play and in a wide variety of styles yet his technique never faltered and his musicianship and perception were consistently in evidence. Secondly, I don’t think we heard Michael Lampard at quite his best. There were several occasions in the first half where his voice failed to speak truly. These instances occurred either at the very top of his compass or on low notes. I don’t know what the cause was but I gather that he arrived from Australia about four days before the recital and I strongly suspect that his voice was suffering the effects of a prolonged period in the pressurised atmosphere of an aircraft cabin. That would explain the frequent sips of water that he took throughout the afternoon. Happily, after the interval these problems seemed to have disappeared, perhaps as the voice had become fully warmed up and it was then – from the Gurney group onwards – that I think we heard his voice to best advantage.
Putting aside the intermittent problems of vocal production, which was “just one of those things”, I was impressed by Lampard’s singing. He has a firm, focused tone. When he sings loudly there’s a pleasing ring to the sound, with vibrato judiciously used. There was no hardening or other sacrifice of tonal quality at loud volume. The Perrins Hall is a mid-sized hall so Lampard was able to fine his voice down to excellent effect in quieter passages of music. Pleasingly, his diction was very clear and I had no need to resort to the texts printed in the programme
Since the recital was linked to Ian Venables’ recent birthday it was entirely appropriate that several of his songs would be heard. Lampard has previously sung quite a number of Venable’s songs, including the Australian premiere of the fine cycle, The Pine Boughs Past Music in 2012. I liked his expressive rendition of Frutti di Mare and, even more so, the committed account of Vitae Summa Brevis, an intense setting of lines by Ernest Dowson. Later in the recital one of the highlights of the entire programme was Lampard’s lovely account of Midnight Lamentation; he sang this eloquent song with great feeling, deploying a seamless legato.
Midnight Lamentation is Venables’ earliest song; in his first group Lampard had given the first performance of Venables’ most recent song. In a Parlour Containing a Table is a setting of a poem by the American poet, Galway Kinnell (1927-2014). The poem is, on a first encounter, a strange one which pithily describes three men sitting round a table, late at night, in a state of individual and collective misery. However, the conclusion of the poem is rather ironic “Good night. Cheer up. Sleep well./You too. You too. You too.” I confess that I didn’t get the joke until I read the poem subsequently – I presume the text could not be printed in the programme for copyright reasons. As is his wont, Venables sets the lines thoughtfully, not least in the dark, spare music of the opening lines. Lampard is clearly an enthusiast for Venables’ songs and I hope he will turn his attention to the composer’s most recent cycle, The Song of the Severn.
To close the first half Lampard offered Elgar’s Sea Pictures. This is a cycle habitually associated with mezzos and contraltos. Indeed, Lampard is only the second male singer who I have heard in these songs. The other is Roderick Williams, who I have heard sing them on CD with orchestra and live with piano (review). From his website I learned that Lampard has had these songs in his repertoire since 2009, the same year, by coincidence, that Williams recorded them. I’ve been impressed by Roderick Williams’ performances, which have almost – but not quite – reconciled me to the “loss” of a female voice. However, a friend of mine, an experienced mezzo who has sung Sea Pictures herself, has expressed the view to me that the songs are not really suited to a male voice. This is nothing to do with the texts, which are not gender-specific; she maintains that the colours of a male voice are not really suited to this cycle. It’s a persuasive argument and, to be honest, this afternoon’s performance rather made the case.
I hasten to say that this is no reflection on the quality of Michael Lampard’s singing; rather it seemed to me that the natural timbre of his voice was not ideally suited to these songs. Significantly, perhaps, the two most convincing performances were the two “biggest” songs, ‘Sabbath morning at sea’ and ‘The Swimmer’. In the former I admired especially the nobility with which Lampard invested “He shall assist me to look higher”. The latter song received a big, dramatic reading though the refreshing urgency which he and Patrick Hemmerle brought to the music – not least at “I would ride as never man has ridden” – was achieved somewhat at the expense of the necessary Elgarian expansiveness. Elsewhere in the cycle I felt that the manliness of Lampard’s voice, admirable in itself, rather compromised the intimacy of ‘Where corals lie’ and the essential gentleness of ‘Sea slumber song’.
Three magnificent songs by Gurney opened the second half of the recital. By a Bierside was well suited to Lampard and his singing of it was committed. Also well suited was the rollicking Captain Stratton’s Fancy. Sleep is, quite simply, one of the truly great English songs. I enjoyed Lampard’s sensitive singing of it and also Hemmerle’s lovely touch at the piano keyboard. My only concern was that the tempo seemed just marginally on the quick side and as a result a little of the magic was missed.
I’ve not come across the music of Mary Taylor before. She was present to hear Lampard sing three of her Edward Thomas settings and was clearly delighted by the performances. The chosen songs were attractive and displayed a pleasing melodic fluency.
The advertised programme concluded with four of the ten Thomas Hardy settings that constitute Gerald Finzi’s wonderful cycle, Earth and Air and Rain, Op. 15. All were well done but I must single out ‘The Clock of the Years’. This received a powerfully dramatic performance from both artists. Lampard’s delivery was gripping and imaginative. Here he really displayed his operatic credentials. I should like to hear him in Finzi’s equally dramatic Hardy setting, Channel Firing.
There was one discerningly chosen encore: To Gratiana, Singing and Dancing by Denis Browne. He was one of the many creative artists cut down in his prime – or, arguably, before his prime – in the World War I trenches. The handful of songs he left behind suggests a considerable talent was lost with his death. This song is one of his finest and it was excellently delivered by Lampard and Hemmerle, bringing their recital to a rewarding end.
There was much to enjoy in this recital,. In particular, it’s a cause for celebration that this young Australian baritone is such an enthusiastic and discerning champion of English song. I hope to hear him again in this repertoire – and, indeed, in other music.