ConcertNorth East & YorkshireOperaReview

Christopher Purves and Simon Lepper – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Opera North’s programme for the Howard Assembly Room is always impressively varied, with jazz, world music and film extensively represented, but this recital took them nearer to home base. Christopher Purves’ most recent appearance with Opera North was as Gianni Schicchi as recently as two years ago.

The programme was cleverly planned, four contrasted sets of songs gradually building intensity, then relaxing it in the final set. The Gramophone magazine once described Purves as effectively having two voices at his disposal, “a ringing incisive high baritone with a sonorous bass extension.” The opening group of Handel songs set about proving this, with the tender elegance of a love song from the opera Agrippina followed by two display numbers for the giant Polyphemus, oddly from different operas. O Ruddier than the Cherry used to be much favoured in Palm Court programmes, but here it was preceded by the giant’s blustering recitative, and, as for Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori, the full range from high baritone to cavernous bass was constantly on display, sometimes in the same bar. 

Schubert’s settings of Heinrich Heine’s words in Schwanengesang proved a weightier matter emotionally, mostly concerned with the sea, all expressing (or hinting at) loss or despair. The opening song may tell merrily of a beautiful fisher maid, but there is a dark subtext which comes more and more to the fore later in the cycle of six songs, the blank despair of Ihr Bild finally leading without pause into the comprehensive sorrow of Der Atlas.

Purves and Lepper mined the emotional and musical range of the Schubert songs expertly, but the interval controversy was over whether the visual projections on the back wall helped this. Before each song the sea shimmered – good for atmosphere – but during the songs more clearly defined images appeared, often of a noir-ish complexion. Certainly, the song recital has settled into a staid formula and innovation is welcome, but some found this distracting. Maybe so, and many images had limited impact, but the hidden menace at the end of the first song probably gained from the visual commentary.

The projections were there for Mussorgsky’s wonderful Songs and Dances of Death, too, four songs where a human situation is vividly described – an ill child, a sick teenage girl, a drunk in the snow, a battle – before Death bursts into his monologue. Purves characterised Death perfectly, from the insidious wheedling of a child’s lullaby to the mighty triumph of Field Marshal Death. Lepper, more than just an accompanist, had his own part in the gruesome tales, with the fractured dance phrases that ended Trepak.

As it happened, the first song in Finzi’s Shakespeare cycle, Let us Garlands bring, deals with death – Come away, come away, death – but Finzi’s refined and very English sensibility is worlds away from Mussorgsky’s confrontation with elemental forces. With Finzi’s songs, Purves and Lepper took us stylishly from death to love and the enjoyment of the here and now: “Present mirth hath present laughter”.

Christopher Purves’ jet-lagged apology for the absence of an encore explained the slight huskiness that occasionally roughened the beguiling legato of Finzi’s vocal lines, but, that apart, it was an impeccable performance.

Reviewed on 16 March 2017 | Image: Contributed

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