Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Mark Valencia

The second in a welcome sequence of lunchtime concerts, all carried live on BBC Radio 3, marked the twenty-year professional partnership of soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook. That landmark was swiftly set aside, though, in favour of the pair’s wraparound title for their hour-long recital: Hope and Longing.

The artfully chosen programme they brought to an empty Wigmore Hall was far from celebratory; rapturous, yes, but tinged with sobriety from the moment presenter Andrew McGregor prefaced proceedings with a two-minute silence to mark Black Lives Matter, as the world comes to terms with racial turmoil in the USA.

In a landscape that’s starved of live music these Wigmore Hall recitals may only be baby steps, but artistry at so high a level amounts to a giant leap for mankind. A generous hour in length with barely a pause for sips of water, it was a mammoth undertaking for a singer whose voice has been in lockdown for several months. Would the soft vocal tissues be sufficiently tough to let Crowe cope? Would the soprano’s vocal timbre have suffered in the interim? The answer was an emphatic no. So on with the show.

Arne’s aria of ecstasy and tragedy, O ravishing delight, was a cunning opener whose ambivalent mood-swings reflected both the listener’s joy at hearing music once more and melancholy at the thought of what’s lost. Crowe’s downward swoop on “I die” was daring but apt and heralded a succession of dramatic gestures from this powerful operatic actress.

Thereafter the artists moved on to art for art’s sake. Crowe’s Schumann selections had hints of robustness in the mezzo register where a measured vibrato rang out sweet and low and characterised all that was gracious in her Lieder singing. It was in Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs, though, that Crowe was completely in her element. The soprano’s accord with Tilbrook was practically symbiotic: Crowe judiciously whitened her tone on certain floated notes and it felt for all the world as though Tilbrook did the same. The young Berg imbibed romantic verse like a thirsty man and his Songs are alive with sensuality, a quality that both artists alchemised into musical ardour. More than anything else here, the Berg Songs felt like Crowe’s musical homecoming.

Of the British Isles miniatures that followed, Gurney’s Sleep and Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon made the strongest impression (Crowe’s way with the word “fresh” in “the long fresh grass” elicited an audible gasp from the only person in my study at the time) while the encore, surely the first I’ve ever heard to be based on zero applause, also choked him (all right, me) up. Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs proved what Noel Coward deemed the potency of cheap music: “We’ll walk together down an English lane / Until our hearts have learned to sing again”. Quite.