Bold Choices

MIKE WHEELER congratulates Nicky Spence and Joseph Middleton on their Buxton Festival programme


Pianist Joseph Middleton put together a wide-ranging sequence of four song recitals for the Buxton Festival, focusing on the four seasons in turn, with four singers taking a season each. In the first of the recitals, tenor Nicky Spence took on the Spring portfolio – Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, UK, 11 July 2023.

Arriving to find that over half of the advertised programme had been changed since the programme-book had gone to print was disconcerting, to say the least, and it took a while to adjust to a whole new set of expectations.

Spence and Middleton began with a French group, finding impetuousness and buoyancy in 'L'hiver a cessé', the final number in Fauré's La Bonne Chanson, followed by the uncertain radiance of 'Les lilas qui avaient fleuri', from Lili Boulanger's cycle Clairières Dans le Ciel; the bright nature-painting of 'L'échelonnement des haies', one of Debussy's Verlaine settings; and more Fauré: 'Adieu', the lament for a past relationship that ends the short cycle Poème d'un Jour.

Nicky Spence. Photo © 2018 David Bebber
Nicky Spence. Photo © 2018 David Bebber

In their German selection, they succeeded in side-stepping any possible tweeness in Mozart's 'Das Veilchen'. In 'Liebesbotschaft', from Schubert's Schwanengesang, they pointed up the affinities with the more hopeful numbers in Die Schöne Müllerin, as the poet asks a stream to take a message to his girlfriend. Two of Grieg's German-language songs followed. 'Gruss', another love-greeting, and 'Ein Traum', celebrating a dream come true. Singer and pianist are to be congratulated, too, on their enterprising choice of a virtually unknown, relatively early song by Janáček, 'Jarní Píseň' (Spring Song).

Joseph Middleton
Joseph Middleton

A final English-language group began with Geoffrey Bush's over-complex setting of 'It was a lover and his lass'. It was a pleasure to be introduced to a Noël Coward song I hadn't come across before, 'Something to do with spring', full of typically sly humour. Margaret Bonds is one of the many black composers whose work is at last getting the recognition it deserves. Her Langston Hughes setting 'Young love in spring' was another bold choice. To end with, there was plenty of bounding energy in Frank Bridge's best-known song, 'Love went a-riding'.

Copyright © 31 July 2023 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK



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