Review: Folk Song, Art Song (Radio 4)

A good folk song should hit you in the solar plexus, writes Antonia Quirke.

The celebrated young baritone Christopher Maltman had a permanently lightly amused tone when presenting an amiable programme about English folk songs being sung by classically trained singers (24 April, 11.30am) – taking it as a given that it can sound uncomfortable. A handful of folk musicians piled in to complain. “I have a horror of Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’”; “The manicured operatic voice I find really offensive”; “I don’t understand – why does a person have to trill on an R?” and so on, convulsed with the idea that there is a tier of English society that cannot appreciate folk music, let alone sing it. 

One thing was agreed: that when the general public hears a good folk song “it hits them in the solar plexus” and it is this immediate collision of pathos – this sense of something unlimited and insatiable – that classical singers long to grab. Hence Ian Bostridge giving a concert of Schubert songs invariably ends with an encore of “The Little Turtle Dove”. This, it was lightly suggested, constitutes a form of theft.

On the one hand we were played Peter Pears singing a Percy Grainger setting of a William Taylor, hearing him rather matily not articulating the G on the end of some verbs and yet cut-glassishly syncopating the word commandaah; and on the other a recording of Margaret Barry simply singing “She Walks Through the Fair” in a pub in Camden in the 1950s. One was rather more embarrassing than the other. Cecil Sharpe got it in the neck. “The collectors wanted to purify culture,” someone sniffed and “Sharpe was militant in thinking the folk song ended in 1840” – as though the man had been devoted to little more than a violent superimposition of wistfulness. 

Not nearly enough was made of this whole issue being madly English. Is it the very elaborate privateness of the successful folk lyric that sits so badly with any hint of gentility? No Italian, for example, scoffed when Caruso sang “O Sole Mio” – a Neopolitan folk song. Few Dubliners cringed when John McCormack sang “Danny Boy” – which he was asked for most, rather than display his famous 64 notes on one breath in Mozart’s “Il Mio Tesoro” from Don Giovanni. James Joyce, one suspects, never asked McCormack why he trilled on an R. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis