Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano, Simon Lepper, piano. Champs Hill 2017 CHRCD125
‘We were very tired… We had gone back and forth all night’.
Edna St Vincent Millay’s words from ‘Recuerdo’, the first song of the album’s eponymous group of settings, could serve well as a cynical assessment of contemporary chamber composition. In an artistic period plagued by the micro-genre, composers often resort to fusing aspects of other genres in an effort to create something new, something subverting that defeatist mantra of everything having ‘been done’. When listening to Nights Not Spent Alone, Kitty Whately’s second album for Champs Hill Records, it might seem evident that Jonathan Dove is guilty of this trope; indeed, through the course of successive song cycles, aspects of jazz, folk, musical theatre, and even cabaret are detectable. The combinations, however, are deft. In setting texts from North American, Indian, Spanish and English poets, Dove succeeds in incorporating apt stylistic brushstrokes whilst retaining his distinctively rhythmic and harmonically expansive sound world. The resulting mien is something that sits between a Brittenesque take on English folksong and a more conservative American jazz standard, with a hint of minimalism along the way.
The ordering of works on the disc demonstrates great consideration towards narrative progression. The opening work, My Love is Mine, an unaccompanied song written in 1997 for a wedding, functions as an opening office, an ideological credo. Expansive, clean, folk-like, the idyll speaks of love and looking to spring. Whately throws down the gauntlet here, giving a powerful, warm, emotionally-present reading of this ebullient melody that establishes the quality of her tone for the rest of the album. This is developed through the variously intimate and excited Five Am’rous Sighs. A warmth reminiscent of Vaughan Williams negates any cheap eroticism in ‘Between Your Sheets’, leading to a boundless exuberance in ‘Finish’ and ‘All These Dismal Looks’, before settling into a more pensive, lontano air for ‘Venus’.
Cut My Shadow, containing the blackest texts of any of the cycles, sees Dove at his most barbaric: staccatissimo rhythmic cells and jazz-infused harmonies are in abundance. ‘Surprise’ and ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’, the first and final songs, are at once redolent of Bernstein (re-inforcing the theatrical subtext), but also suggest lesser-known Latin voices, such as the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, and in a more contemporary context, the Spanish composer Antón García Abril. Dove seemingly communicates not only the blunt, yet evocative narrative of each text, but, through a fiery vocal line, the revolutionary character of Lorca himself. Indeed, Whately’s almost feral chest-voice declamation of the word ‘Madre’, set unrelentingly in a melismatic, forte falling phrase, is simultaneously angry, sorrowful and fiery; and entirely engaging. Alongside Latin flavourings, the presence of musical theatre is also felt. ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’, in particular, seems to owe a debt to the stylings of Sondheim: the restless motivic repetitions are voiced naturalistically, along with the accompaniment’s syncopated added-note harmonies and instances of melodic doubling, such as on ‘Free me from the anguish / Of seeing myself fruitless.’ The resulting effect is jazzily intimate and eminently theatrical. Mention must be made of Simon Lepper’s work in these songs. He masters the volatile Latin rhythms and presents them with great accuracy and élan.
The album’s new work. Nights Not Spent Alone, features texts decidedly naturalistic and nakedly dramatic for their time. This reveals something, perhaps, of the St Vincent Millay’s socialist-feminist views. The songs were commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3, for whom Whately was a New Generation Artist, and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artists Scheme. Of the three poems, it is the first two, ‘Recuerdo’ and ‘What Lip My Lips Have Kissed’, that share the more consonant dramatic and musical language. The sense of contemplation and distance travelled that pervades these two songs owes a debt to late nineteenth and twentieth century English folksong and chamber works: Britten’s folksong arrangements, Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain and Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad can all be glimpsed through the sustained vocal line and figure-based, though expansive, piano writing. ‘I Too Beneath Your Moon’ acts as a synthesis between the bounding folk language and the more rhythmically barbaric stylings of ‘Cut My Shadow’. The piano is initially forward-driving, arpeggiated and restless, before changing into a more accented language akin to the earlier Latin sound world. Kitty Whately is afforded her most polarised dynamic moments in this work; from the rhythmic marcato of ‘the long necks / Of neighbours sitting where their mothers sat’ to the nakedly powerful operatic sound of ‘lust’, she makes full use of her vocal assets.
Kitty Whately is indeed a revelation. Traversing a range of emotions, styles and articulations, all with a certain melodic consonance, she shows a mature polish and assuredness. One of Dove’s defining talents in composing for particular artists is his ability to evoke the stylistic mannerisms of each specific voice. That the titular cycle does not immediately mark itself out as the one dedicated to Whately is a testament to her versatility and vocal maturity. She is gifted a set of works that rely neither on vocal pyrotechnics nor nebulous extended techniques, but rather on a dedication to the dramatic narrative through an inherent lyricism. Dove’s preferred technique in writing for the solo voices, evident in each work on this disc, is to write a sostenuto line for the voice, with rhythmic and stylistic gestures largely being found in the piano accompaniment. Even the more spiky, fractious moments in songs such as ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’ and ‘I Too Beneath Your Moon’ benefit from being constructed of consonant motivic cells. Whately’s warmth of tone and immediacy of response are the primary facets in realising an authentic, consistent sound across each cycle. She negotiates all her most operatic moments effortlessly, with a faster vibrato and more brilliance in her tone. One may perhaps perceive a certain shrillness in these moments; they are nevertheless dramatically appropriate and authoritative.
If the accompanist is indeed the key to deciphering Dove’s stylistic influences, the role of the pianist is equal in importance to the singer, and undoubtedly illustrative of the composer’s background as a repetiteur. Simon Lepper is responsive and impressively assured throughout the course of each work. Although appearing to have particular appetite for all the most energetic, rhythmic moments, he is deeply sensitive and responsive in the more intimate works. Matching the lyrical intensity of ‘All the Future Days’, he demonstrates an exquisite restraint combined with an ably nimble touch in the wonder-like ostinatos of ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Spider’, whose accompaniments are perhaps the most familiar in their pointillistic repetitions to those who are enthusiasts of Dove’s choral music.
Technically, the album is a triumph. The recording, production and mastering are superlative; the resulting sound crystal-clear, yet having the requisite warmth and resonance. The balance between the performers is extremely well-considered: the singer is always prevalent, both in terms of volume in the rounder sound of the disc’s more operatic episodes, and of diction in the porcelainic intimacy of quieter moments. Yet Lepper is strong enough to act perfectly as both support and foil where needed. It is the sense of narrative conviction in every respect: text choice, performance, and programme order, that marks this album as noteworthy among a sea of similar releases. What Dove brings to his work through reverence to the narrative, Whately and Lepper complement with emotional and stylistic sensitivity and authenticity. ‘From what I had to build with: honest bone / Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;’ The prospect of more music stories from Whately, told with this level of engagement, this ‘honest bone’, is very exciting.