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Cryptic like Cantona

04/12/2002 -  
Roger Quilter: Three Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6
Charles Ives: Slow March; An Old Flame; In the Alley
Paul Bowles: Blue Mountain Ballads
Benjamin Britten: Folk Song Arrangements
Aaron Copland: Old American Songs Sets I and II
Spirituals: Deep River; Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel; Ezekiel Saw the Wheel; Joe Hill; Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Willard White (bass-baritone), Wayne Marshall (piano)

Willard White followed a day after Thomas Quasthoff in the Barbican Hall, and you couldn't find two more different bass baritones. Where Quasthoff is direct and human and has a glorious bloom to his voice, White is autonomous and controlled, almost mannered at times, and the power of his voice is in its incredible focus. Where Quasthoff just seems to be, White is definitely performing, and loving every minute of it. They do, though, share superb diction and a profound understanding of both the text and the music they sing.

White's programme of English-language songs from the twentieth century gave him scope to deliver a few old favourites, but also to follow a wide-ranging musical and thematic thread, from Shakespeare and early folk songs to American art songs. The programme note emphasises the class and economic background to the composition of the songs, but their continuity and contrast seemed to have more to do with the basic things in life and love, as White's occasional gnomic commentary suggested, hinting at childhood, adolescence and parenthood as structuring themes.

Most of the songs were fairly familiar recital material, but White has a special presence that worked new wonders. He and Wayne Marshall had particular fun with Charles Ives' "In the Alley", a pastiche of a particularly bad cod-Irish ballad that they managed to perform absolutely straight until it fell to bits from its own uselessness. White was superb and exhilarating in the breakneck tongue twisting numbers in the Copland sets, especially the utterly silly "I had a Cat" and the euphoric "Ching-a-Ring-Chaw", and meltingly tender in "The Little Horses". "Joe Hill", not exactly a spiritual, was included in homage to Paul Robeson, a hero of White's. If White's voice doesn't have the intensity and depth of Robeson's recorded voice, he sang it with comparable complete and moving conviction.

Paul Bowles' Blue Mountain Ballads (with text by Tennessee Williams) were probably the only novelty on the programme, and they were a revelation. Each of the four short songs evokes a moment of heightened awareness, of consciousness and identity, of masculinity and of the world. The texts are balanced and elegant, but they make full use of folk and popular material ("I won't buy love at the hardware store"), and the music similarly incorporates very beautifully blues and spiritual elements in a traditional art-song format with emphasis on the song.

The audience seemed bemused by White's first choice of encore, the Bermudan song "Murder in the market", so he and Marshall ended with "Old Man River", which sent them away happy although he adapted the words (as Robeson did) to make it a song of suppressed anger and hope rather than one of lazy complacency.

H.E. Elsom



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