Saturday 4 June 2016

Mezzo soprano, Clare McCaldin brings a quite remarkable gathering together of songs that evokes so many emotions on her new disc for Champs Hill Records, Notes from the Asylum

On her previous disc for Champs Hill Records of songs my Stephen McNeff, mezzo-soprano, Clare McCaldin  demonstrated just what a very fine artist she is. Her latest disc for Champs Hill, entitled Notes from the Asylum is an exploration of songs about female madness ranging from Purcell, through Brahms, to Ned Rorem and Stephen McNeff. She is accompanied by pianist Libby Burgess and clarinettist Catriona Scott.


Clare McCaldin brings an operatic drama to Benjamin Britten’s realisation of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) Mad Bess, delivering great expression, beautifully shaping the text with moments of fine power.

I must confess to having never heard of the English soprano and composer Harriet Abrams (1758-1821) who studied singing, music theory and composition with the composer Thomas Arne before make her professional opera début at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. McCaldin finds much feeling in Abrams’ Crazy Jane with moments that bring a dark humour.

Between 1871 and 1874 Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) wrote a large amount of vocal music, including no less than thirty three songs published in four groups. In addition to these songs, in 1873, he also wrote his five Ophelia Lieder though they were not to be published until 1935. The lovely little Vie erkenn' ich dein Treuließ is beautifully shaped by McCaldin before a quite lovely Sein Leichenhemd weiß where both McCaldin and Burgess find just the right pathos.

Burgess adds a lovely flowing rhythmic buoyancy to Auf morgen ist Sankt Valentins Tag over which this fine mezzo delivers a nicely nuanced and subtly characterised vocal line. She brings such fine control to Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß, tailoring each phrase to bring out the emotion of the text. To conclude this set there is a rather affecting Und kommt er nicht mehr zurück? with McCaldin bringing a lovely tone with beautifully controlled phrasing and dynamics.  

Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) set poems by the German Romantic poet, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) in his Mörike-Lieder of 1888. The five songs featured here are all sung by the Ophelia-like character of Agnes as she appears in Mörike’s 1832 novel Maler Nolten.

Burgess finds the right atmosphere as the first song, Agnes opens, McCaldin rising and falling through moments of terrific pathos, exquisitely done by both with a wonderful restraint. Burgess brings a very fine, stormy accompaniment to Lied vom Winde with McCaldin following the changes in dynamics and tempi wonderfully with moments of terrific gusto.  

Seufzer has a finely shaped opening for piano before this fine mezzo joins to bring an intense emotion. This is a performance of great intensity from both, reaching a pitch by the time the words ‘O hellish pain’ are reached. Burgess immediately brings a sense of loss to Wo find' ich Trost before McCaldin joins, full of passion and intensity set against moments of restrained emotion. She shapes her voice quite wonderfully in the spoken Gebet drawing every nuance from the text.

Renowned for his song settings, Ned Rorem (b.1923) set poems by Sylvia Plath for his song cycle Ariel (1971) for soprano, clarinet & piano. Here Clare McCaldin and Libby Burgess are joined by clarinettist, Catriona Scott. The opening song, Words, brings a striking contrast as piano, clarinet and mezzo strike out in the declamatory opening. This mezzo shapes the ever changing phrases wonderfully, finding much feeling as the song progresses. She brings a lovely undulating vocal line to Poppies in July to which piano and clarinet add a mournful accompaniment in this quite exquisite setting, beautifully realised with the clarinet rising to greater prominence before the gentle coda.

Scott, has complete prominence in the virtuosic opening of The Hanging Man with McCaldin weaving a terrific anguished vocal line in a remarkably fine performance to which Burgess adds many fine moments before another virtuosic clarinet passage to end.

Poppies in October is a slow, melancholy song that moves gently along with clarinet and piano weaving around the mezzo line, finely controlled in the subtle rises and falls. McCaldin brings a sense of insane humour in Lady Lazarus as she swirls around with a terrific contribution from the piano and clarinet, negotiating the most taxing intervals and dynamic outbursts. A terrific achievement by all three performers.

Vivienne by Stephen McNeff (b.1951) is an opera in six songs, tracing the disastrous marriage of Vivienne Haigh-Wood to the poet T.S. Elliot. The libretto by Andy Rashleigh gives a voice to Vivienne who died in an asylum.

Before Tom has a lovely piano opening, gentle and flowing to which Clare McCaldin brings a beautifully phrased vocal line, finely negotiating the tempi, rhythmic and dynamic changes and always finding the right tone and texture with McNeff providing some lovely harmonies for the mezzo. Eliot Erect has a rather riotous rhythmic piano opening before falling quiet for the entry of the mezzo. It soon picks up a rhythmic skip that alternates with a more restrained feel, finely matched to the text. There are some wonderful ‘Cockney’ characterisations from McCaldin, full of humour and, at times slightly risqué, masking an underlying sadness.

The Land of Lost Content brings a calmer, more leisurely quality as Vivienne sings of her memories of Tom. The gently cutting nature of the text is wonderfully brought out by McCaldin. Bertie is no less witty and cutting with McCaldin absolutely terrific in the fast moving, almost spoken text with quick fire responses from Libby Burgess.

Through the Darkness I Can Hear is a quite heartrending setting, finely caught by McCaldin who is always able to reach the emotional core of a text, rising powerfully at the tragic words ‘…no reason left to live.’ Burgess delivers a rather haunting opening to Belladonna before McCaldin sings ‘Belladonna, Queen of Cups/Surrounded by the blood-dark sea…’  Again she finds so many layers to the text, an increasing loss of reason. Burgess all the while helps to raise the temperature before McCaldin brings a dramatic Cockney characterisation that leads to an unsettling unaccompanied coda, remarkably sung by this terrific mezzo-soprano.

This is a quite remarkable gathering together of songs that evoke so many emotions.  Clare McCaldin shows how she is able to shape and control her voice to draw so much from each song, following the subtle nuances of each text to deliver the most remarkable performances. Libby Burgess provides the most sensitive accompaniment adding much to the emotional thrust of these songs.

They are beautifully recorded at Champs Hill’s Music Room in West Sussex, England and there are informative booklet notes from Clare McCaldin and Paul Conway as well as full texts and English translations (except for the Rorem due to copyright restrictions). 

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