wed 24/07/2024

Newby, Middleton, Wigmore Hall review - archly subversive interpretation of traditional themes | reviews, news & interviews

Newby, Middleton, Wigmore Hall review - archly subversive interpretation of traditional themes

Newby, Middleton, Wigmore Hall review - archly subversive interpretation of traditional themes

Baritone and pianist perform an innovative repertoire featuring two world premieres

Wit and invention: James Newby and Joseph MiddletonAll images c The Wigmore Hall Trust

To understand the ambition of baritone James Newby, it helps to look up his video of Handel’s “Cara Pianta” from Apollo e Dafne. It would be remarkable by any standards for the fact that his head becomes gradually submerged by water while he’s delivering it, but Radiohead fans will also recognise it as a stylish parody of No Surprises performed by Thom Yorke.

The first time I saw Newby singing live after watching this video, he was playing the male lead in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the 2022 Proms, a difficult role which gave him little chance to demonstrate his expressive talents. By contrast, in this innovative and wide-ranging recital at the Wigmore Hall he was able to demonstrate both a broad palate of emotions and his taste for subtle subversion.

The first gentle twist was that while the concert was labelled Songs of Antiquity – reflecting the predominance of classical and Biblical themes in the songs – the music itself roamed freely from the Renaissance to the present day. It opened with a world premiere by the composer Oliver Muxworthy – whose background as a jazz pianist was reflected in smoky glissandos on the piano that made it feel as if you could have been in Ronnie Scott’s at midnight.

For this solo piano piece – teasingly named Prologue – the lights of the Wigmore Hall were dimmed so that we were sitting in near darkness. Beyond being highly atmospheric it inevitably made the act of listening more focused – to the degree that it felt like a shame when the lighting came up again, and stayed on till the concert’s concluding Epilogue, also by Muxworthy. As the piece – shimmeringly delivered by Joseph Middleton – progressed, the chords gradually became more impressionistic. Then almost seamlessly it tilted into Muxworthy’s new arrangement of John Dowland’s Renaissance work, Flow My Tears. Newby and MiddletonThis new version of one of the most famous works by the master of melancholy (who notoriously punned “semper Dowland, semper dolens”/“Always Dowland, always grieving) deliberately disrupted the clean lines of the original for something more improvisatory. It sounded like Dowland viewed through a whisky glass, and Newby reflected the wilder emotions by letting his whole body be moved by the music. As he felt his way down the piano it was as if he was completely possessed by his despair. For Dowland, melancholy was also a style much in the way that blues is now, and this was an intriguing take on one of the repertoire’s great classics.

A shift into two of Schubert’s adaptations of Schiller enabled us to experience the full rich magnificence of Newby’s voice. Where in the Dowland it had been more subtle and occasionally frayed, here, in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus/Scene from the Deepest Regions of the Underworld it was filled with menace and portent. Newby revelled as much in the texture of the language as the music itself; when he sang “Bricht die Sense des Saturns entzwel”/ “breaks Saturn’s scythe asunder”, the rough “cht” from the “bricht” rang across the hall. Then as he moved into the more elegiac Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands/Verses from the gods of Greece, his vowels became velvety, with Middleton’s sensitive, gently detached accompaniment, heightening the sense of fragility and regret.

Historically there has – somewhat extraordinarily – been debate over how conscious Schubert was of the homoerotic themes in his setting of Goethe’s Ganymed/Ganymede. Yet in his performance Newby left no doubt of what he thought about its arch flirtatiousness. Shifting between playfulness and ardour he had huge fun with emphasising its most suggestive elements. At one point he ribaldly sang “Ich komm', ich komme”/ “I come, I come” while wagging his finger, at another he coyly invited the subject of the poem to approach him “Mir! Mir!”/ “To me! To me!” with treacly intensity.

For the final part of the first section, Newby and Middleton performed another world premiere – the song cycle commissioned in 2020, I Saw a Peacock, by Brian Elias. Elias – who has lived most of his life in London but was born in Bombay and has ancestral roots in Jewish Baghdad – reflects his wide cultural background in varied, often technically ambitious works. Like the cycle the opening song is called I Saw a Peacock. While it's often anthologised as a nursery rhyme, Elias himself sees it as a more apocalyptic work and Middleton’s fine piano accompaniment erupted into vivid splashes of colour as Newby excavated the song’s visionary fire. Out of the six songs in the cycle, highlights included William Blake’s The Angel, which began with tornado-like energy before resolving into melancholic stillness, and Edward Thomas’s Will you come? in which the cobwebbed piano accompaniment alternated with almost serpentine shifts of the voice.

Following the interval Newby delivered a sparkily theatrical rendition of Schumann’s account of decadence and doom, Belsatzar. This was closely followed by the deceptive calm of Hugo Wolf’s nineteenth century work Auf ein altes Bild/On an old painting in which the clarity of Middleton’s piano accompaniment felt like the refreshing coldness of the stream flowing alongside the Virgin and her child. Newby and MiddletonAfter Newby’s resonant, dramatic account of Schubert’s setting of Johann Baptist Mayrhofer’s Fahrt zum Hades/Journey to Hades – a companion piece to the first half’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus – we were swept up into the torrid emotions of three settings of Petrarch’s sonnets by Liszt. Once more Middleton excelled himself as he went from jagged ascending  chords to swirling bittersweet lyricism in Pace no trovo/I Find No Peace, while Newby powerfully charted the journey from emotional anguish to painful yearning.

The surging passions of Benedetto sia’l giorno/Blessed be the day ascended still further into the operatic heights of I’vidi in terra angelici costumi/I beheld on earth angelic grace. Then we were back to Dowland, this time in Muxworthy’s new arrangement In darkness let me dwell. Here, at the start the accompaniment felt like the gentle dropping of acid rain that evolved once more into shimmering impressionism. Newby sensitively traced the song’s precarious emotions before his voice faded away and the lights came down for the flickering candlelight delicacy of Muxworthy’s Epilogue


Middleton’s fine piano accompaniment erupted into vivid splashes of colour as Newby excavated the song’s visionary fire


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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much appreciate this review - we were at the concert and I have his CDs and I think he is a great singer with a marvellous voice and brilliant interpretive skills

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