Concert review

Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano) and Simon Lepper (piano)

16th October 2017

A disappointingly small audience greeted Anna Huntley and Simon Lepper for their second visit to Penrith Music Club’s series of concerts, on Monday 16th October. Admittedly there was a strong breeze but perhaps we now place too much reliance on the dire warnings broadcast relentlessly by media at the behest of ‘the authorities’. On this occasion Anna’s programme featured paired composers, Grieg with Delius, Poulenc with Britten. Delius is not an obvious name that springs to mind for a song recital, but Anna Huntley’s championing of these typically chromatic settings of Norwegian lyrics illustrated Delius’ mastery of the form, particularly the folk song style which permeated the first three songs, and of those particularly ‘Twighlight Fancies’, with its hunting horn motif.  The final song of the set, ‘Longing’, was more in keeping with Delius’ rhapsodic style. Together with Simon Lepper’s sensitive and accomplished playing of the delicate accompaniments, these songs formed a wonderful opening to the concert.

By contrast, the usual folk element of Grieg’s music was not as strong in Haugtussa – the mountain maid, which, Anna explained, told a story of love and loss. Anna brought these songs, this character, vividly to life; a considerable achievement, for although this set of songs is beautiful and lyrical, they haven’t the instant appeal of Grieg’s more popular miniatures. The final song of the set again showed Simon Lepper’s delicate articulation of the rippling brook in the repeated arpeggios.

The second half of the concert brought out a different character initially in the weary, worldly-wise settings of Apollinaire by Poulenc. The title of the set sums it up – Banalities. Again, Anna brought this continental café chanteuse to life with an appropriately soft and lithe tone. There is something unsettling in these songs, which becomes more obvious when you realise they were written during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Indeed ‘Hotel’ shares the same melodic line as the finale of Poulenc’s ballet ‘Les Animaux Modeles’, also written at this time. The final Poulenc setting, ‘Les Chemins d’Amour’ was a nostalgic waltz, not a million miles in sentiment from Ravel’s ‘La Valse’.

Back to the English of Britten and three of his deceptively simple arrangements of folk song, the galloping ‘Come ye not from Newcastle’, the utterly spare, portentous and cold ‘The trees they grow so high’, with its increasingly tortuous accompaniment, and finally ‘O waly, waly’, whose simple rocking accompaniment underpins the pain of lost love: pure genius, both in composition and performance by both singer and accompanist.

Britten’s Cabaret Songs are settings of Auden’s sardonic poetry, tinged with humour. However, they do not ‘tell a story’ like Grieg’s Haugtussa, each song thus demanding its own characterisation to bring it to life, which Anna Huntley did with consummate ease.

An expectant audience was not disappointed with an encore of Britten and Poulenc’s settings of the same words from ‘The Merchant of Venice’, both brief and typical settings by each composer, both equally apt and delightful, and, as with this whole concert, delivered with complete mastery by Anna Huntley and Simon Lepper.

Charles Ritchie

Updated on 17th January 2018. Contact webmaster