, July 2011
Michelle Breedt was born in South Africa and began her voice studies there. Next came a spell at London’s Guildhall, where she presumably encountered a few of the songs in the second part of this programme. English is therefore one of her mother tongues. However, her career has basically taken place in Germany and in opera, though without neglecting lieder. My first encounter with her was “Dvorák und seine Zeit”, a programme masterminded by Thomas Hampson for the 2004 Salzburg Festival and issued by Orfeo (C 656 0521). Breedt’s principal contribution was Dvorák’s “Love Songs” op.83 sung in English. This curious decision was made by Hampson who seemingly thought, on the basis of an edition with English words, that these songs were actually written in that language. In reality, and in spite of the high opus number, they were culled from Dvorák’s very early cycle “Cypresses” and were written in Czech. I dredge this up again—I discussed it when reviewing the set—because Breedt seems to have learnt from the episode a tendency to equate musicology with spending half-an-hour in a music store. In speaking of a “daunting task” she conjures up visions of hours spent in libraries grubbing through long-out-of-print scores. In actual fact she has not, so far as I can see, “discovered” anything that isn’t currently in print. Eric Coates in serious vein, Julius Harrison and Stuart Findlay sound mouth-wateringly rare but in fact an anthology of Shakespeare settings currently available from Boosey & Hawkes contains these and many other songs in the programme. But I don’t want to labour the point since the programme was basically aimed at a public with zero knowledge of the repertoire. And in any case, the availability of those particular songs doesn’t seem to have stimulated anyone to record them ere now. Breedt also writes enthusiastically and often perceptively about a number of the songs. Somewhat sloppily, though, she twice refers to Findlay as “Finley”.
A similar mix of inspiration and approximation seems to have gone into the preparation of the performances themselves. She rightly remarks that “it was of the utmost importance to me to stick as closely as possible to the dynamic markings cited by each and every composer in this selection”. But it’s worth getting the notes right too. On the last page of Harrison’s “I know a bank”, the two semi-quavers to the word “musk” are sung a tone lower than written. At the beginning of the last line but one of Parry’s “Willow, willow, willow”, she shifts the descent of the vocal line, before the pause, to the beginning of the following bar. Sung and played as written a curious passing dissonance is created, for which reason Breedt maybe took it upon herself to correct the poor nut, but I happen to think Parry knew what he was doing. In Head’s “The homecoming of the sheep”, in the line “merry boys with shouldered crooks”, and again when the same phrase is sung to “cormorants and seagulls call”, she sings a B not a C sharp as written. In Gurney’s “Sleep”, at the words “delight awhile” she sings a B flat not an A flat. On the next page the word “idle” is divided into four semiquavers plus two instead of five plus one as written. Breedt and her pianist have better things to do than sit looking at each other all that time so they cut the rest out.
If this list seems long, I should add that I had available scores to exactly half the songs on the disc, so according to the law of averages a full list might be longer. But let us charitably apply the presumption of innocence and suppose this not to be so. On a slightly different tack, in “The Faithless Shepherdess”, the internal rhymes of “Adieu, Love, adieu, Love, untrue Love …. soon lost for new love” surely prove that the anonymous poet expect “adieu” to be pronounced “a dew” rather than in the French manner, as Breedt does.
Which brings us to pronunciation. I was somewhat disconcerted at first by Breedt’s very matronly delivery. “Who is Sealvyah?” she asks many times, and later on there is “Titanyah”. Rs are sumptuously rolled. On the contrary, while Hs are well present in vital words they are often skimped in words like “him” and “her”. The effect is almost as if she is guying an upper-crust grand society dame of the 1930s. It’s true that most of these songs were originally heard in drawing-rooms where people talked, even sang, like that, but it sounds parodistic if repeated today. However, it all adds up to a personality. After the initial perplexity I found myself tuning to Breedt’s wavelength and became quite fond of her as the disc went on.
It is, however, a manner of delivery that can lead to exaggeration. Sometimes she digs into a word in a way that its context scarcely justifies. Towards the end of “The homecoming of the sheep”, at the line “Then sleep wraps every bell up tight” she inflects “wraps” as though introducing a cutthroat, even conspiratorial element into the proceedings. But perhaps the time has come for a few comparisons. Some of these songs are rare, but several have time-hallowed favourites demanding to be taken off the shelf. First Janet Baker and Gerald Moore in Parry’s “O mistress mine”. In the introduction Nina Schumann gives us a bumpy ride compared with Gerald Moore. Janet Baker then sings her first lines with a sense of unforced enjoyment. The result is that, when she places a word slightly, which she does for the first time with “low” at the end of the third line, the effect is memorable. Breedt, by pointing practically everything, in the end points nothing. So it is with Head’s “A Piper”, included by Janet Baker on the early Saga disc mentioned above. This time the pianist is Martin Isepp. Baker paints the scene deliciously, the words tripping from her mouth. Everything depends on colours. She does not slow down for emphasis, which Breedt does all too often. This makes the song plain heavy. And the trouble is, the song itself is rather flimsy, but we don’t notice this when Janet Baker sings it. In Gurney’s “Sleep” line is fundamental. Baker is clear with the words but never loses the line through emphasizing details along the way.
However, there are strong compensations. It may seem unsporting of me to say this only now, but Breedt’s voice is a splendid instrument, rich, creamy and secure in the upper register, firm in the lower one, evenly controlled with a wide dynamic range. She can spin a pianissimo, as in “Silver”, where she makes the unexpected decision to sing the high voice version, and brings it off beautifully. In spite of the small misreading I encored “I know a bank” immediately because it was such a lovely song, sensitively handled. And not all the comparisons go against her. Robert Tear’s version of “When we two parted” has the advantage of Philip Ledger’s more insightful playing of the piano prelude—Nina Schumann is more conventionally passionate. But Breedt finds more in the song than Tear’s well-schooled, gentlemanly reading reveals. It was a pleasure to listen again to John Shirley-Quirk’s “Silent Noon”, a favourite of my schooldays (Saga XID 5211), but I’m not sure that I don’t find Breedt more vivid now. And, while I thought Breedt occasionally robbed “Love’s Philosophy” of its excitement with some overemphasis, turning to white-toned, pretty-piping Jennifer Vyvyan’s inexpressive gallopade was to remind myself that there were ways of singing these songs that have hopefully been banished forever. I hope the Rheingau audience were left wanting more and that Breedt might investigate the repertoire further. She is not yet quite a natural in this repertoire but she may yet become so. If she hasn’t heard Janet Baker’s not very numerous forays into this repertoire I hope she will seek them out. Nina Schumann sounds remarkably at home in the piano parts.
As well as Breedt’s introductory note, there is an essay on British song in general by Ruth Seiberts. Some of her comments will sound strange to British ears. We may get tired of the automatic pairing of Parry and Stanford in all history books, but Seiberts has a solution for this: “Both Parry and Elgar introduced a new direction to English music, away from Victorian strictness and towards a freer engagement with musical material”. We may also tire of the penny-in-the-slot emphasis on Stanford as a teacher rather than as a composer. Seiberts has an answer to that one, too: “A true English musical renaissance had been prompted by Parry and Elgar. This is especially apparent with Parry, who was a lecturer at the Royal College of Music. By virtue of this position, he attracted talented students, many of whom later went on to become composers themselves”. She then goes on to mention that Vaughan Williams “studied under Parry” [as far as composition was concerned he went to Stanford, Parry was Principal of the RCM but didn’t actually teach composition] and “was also keen to study with Elgar, but was not accepted”. English musical history as she is wrote in Germany!
But all things considered, a warm welcome to the best—and particularly the least recorded—things here.