The on/off saga of the Ensemble Studio’s promised Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared came to an apparent conclusion yesterday. It had been postponed at least once and even this morning the COC website is advertising a complete performance with two soloists and a small chorus.
It didn’t happen. What we got was a recital by Owen McAusland singing some excerpts from the Janáček plus Vaughan William’s The House of Life and Britten’s Les Illuminations. It was his last performance as a member of the Ensemble Studio during which time, among many other things, he sang several main stage performances as Tito covering for a sick Michael Schade.
Jennifer Szeto played for the Janáček and provided quite a delicate contrast for the most part to Owen’s rather dramatic, even assertive singing. He was really quite impressive here with a big, full sound and the ability to conjure up a range of emotions. This made for some interesting contrasts between, say, the fierceness of That black-eyed gypsy girl and the much more understated Already swallows are twittering overhead. As best I could tell the Czech diction was really very good too.
Liz Upchurch played for the Vaughan Williams and Britten selections. Owen sang five of the six numbers from The House of Life (omitting Heart’s Haven). I was really intrigued to see how these would turn out as I have only heard them sung by baritones before. It was really very good. Owen sang with perfect diction and great expressiveness while Liz provided a really fine accompaniment. Along with Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad settings I think these songs are about as indicative of early 20th century English art song as it gets. As such they’ve drawn to them the best of English singers and so the bar is high. Owen did not disappoint at all.
Les Illuminations is perhaps the most manic thing Britten wrote. It’s a setting of weird impressionistic texts by Rimbaud and is actually scored for chamber orchestra. It’s also more often done by a soprano than a tenor though Pears recorded it. Owen and Liz offered up five numbers including the crazy, crazy Villes which takes a complex text at patter song pace and far from patter song dynamics and the weirdly evocative Phrase which sits really high and ends on a sort of descending scopp that must be the very devil to sing. All of this was navigated with aplomb if not, I imagine, ease by both parties. It was pretty impressive.
Instead of an encore we got a rather touching farewell to Nina Draganic from those members of the Ensemble Studio present. For the last nine years Nina has been the driving force behind the wonderful free concert series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. She is now moving on to bigger things at the COC leaving the concert planning in the very capable hands of cyclist and cat lover Clare Morley.