"Cheryl Barker recital"
"Cancellation due to illness"
Two phrases which, in combination, should spell misery and deep disappointment. I expect circumstances to conspire against me when it comes to singers. If there's a bug to be caught, my soprano will catch it. Not that it has happened so very often — but the few cancellations I've been through have traumatised me enough to make me live in terror of a repeat. The sight of Adrian Collette edging his way on to the opera theatre stage before a performance causes my little heart no end of palpitations. When he showed up before an Arabella, I was stricken; when I was assured it wasn't Cheryl who was sick, I cried real tears of relief.
So imagine my joy and delight to find that for once, illness and consequent cancellation were to work decidedly in my favour.
On Monday I went to a recital at Angel Place by Cheryl Barker, Peter Coleman-Wright and Piers Lane. We were told beforehand that Peter was singing through a nasty cold. He coped quite remarkably, but there was no doubting he was not a well man. Evidently the cold got worse. The trio was due to repeat the programme last night. I, being me, had tickets for both. And on Thursday morning I had the news, from a colleague very much In The Know that Peter had been obliged to cancel his appearance in the second recital. How would the gap be filled. "Piers will play more. And Cheryl will sing more." [emphasis mine, clearly]
Never in a million years would I wish ill health upon the charming Peter Coleman-Wright. But unexpected extra Cheryl Barker? Yes, thanks, I'll wish for that.
From there my good fortune spread. I had a seat in the second row, right at the far edge of the theatre. But my section of the row was unoccupied and I was able to move to an aisle seat, with not a single head blocking the way between myself and Cheryl. Even when, during intermission, the person whose seat I had stolen turned up, he was more than happy for me to keep it. There was even a woman handing out free chocolates at intermission.
None of the above compares, however, to the supreme felicity of simply hearing Cheryl Barker sing. In the end, her bonus tracks amounted to just two extra Lieder at the begining and a different encore; but what happy bonuses they were. Just for me — or so I choose to think — she opened with my favourite Schubert song, an ardent "Gretchen am Spinnrade". I have a history of obsession with this song. I love it. I especially love "und ach...sein Kuss!" and shan't soon forget the exquisite anguish in Cheryl's voice as she reached that crucial moment, und ach...the way she lingered and lingered on that final "sssss"! Swiftly on Gretchen's heels, another big favourite of mine — Schumann's divine "Widmung", fabulously sung. Be still, my beating heart.
Naturally we were denied the duets by Mendelssohn and Schumann which were sung on Monday. Piers Lane filled the gap. Just to add to my run of luck, he played Liszt's transcription of the slow movement of Beethoven 7, followed by Schumann's Variations upon that same slow movement. Beethoven 7 is a current mild fixation of mine and thus one of the pieces of music I was most inclined to hear.
Cheryl returned with the same solo bracket she'd sung on Monday. Five songs by Richard Strauss. If you're me, which you mightn't be, but which I definitely am, there's really not much in life better than a crazily gorgeous soprano singing Strauss from just a few metres away. All of them songs I already knew and loved, chosen perfectly for me and for her voice.
In "Cäcilie" I expected a sort of desperate hunger — "if only, if only" and so forth. But both the poem and Strauss' setting of it, as Cheryl explained in her lovely spoken introduction, were love tokens. Strauss gave the song to scary Pauline the night before their wedding. So Cheryl took it in this spirit, made it a jubilant affair, an expression of longing very shortly to be fulfilled. From expansive rapture to perfect serenity — "Morgen". It's a song like no other, except perhaps its cousins, the Four Last Songs. She was devastatingly gentle, floating down to a soft, soft landing before moving on. When she did move on, it was to "Wiegenlied", which on Monday she had dedicated to her son. Again, magnificent. Not that I would dream of sleeping while somebody was singing like this to me. She flitted, flirted and fluttered her way through the romantic antics of "Ständchen", her instinctive gift for acting illuminating the little scene perfectly. And then came the clincher. "Allerseelen". Of the five, this was the song I was least familiar with, though I've heard it from time to time. I didn't know exactly what it dealt with until Cheryl explained. Then, when she sang, and the remains of my high school German went to work, I understood. On Monday it was amazing. On Thursday it truly tore me apart. She sang this in a manner more akin to a grand scena than an art song and the result was extraordinary. She sang "Stell auf dem Tisch die duftenden Reseden", and I saw the table and the flowers; and saw her see them. When she reached the song's stricken climax, her body bent with the pain of it. It was a moment apart; no plots, props or costumes but as characterful and moving as anything I've seen her do on the operatic stage.
Thanks heaven for intermission. I needed a chance to recover. That was followed by more Piers, Brahms this time. Then Cheryl, with an abbreviated version of Songlines of the Heart's Desire, a song cycle written for Cheryl and Peter by Richard Mills and receiving its premiere on this tour. Maybe it is a terrible thing to say, but I liked the Thursday version better. The songs are attractive enough if not masterpieces, but there was bit of sameishness in hearing eight of them together. Honestly, what I liked best about them was not the songs themselves but the way they made Cheryl sound. True to form, her voice was growing warmer and brighter as the evening progresses, and the wide-ranging but perfectly tailored writing of Mills' songs made for some truly wonderful Cheryl moments. I'm pretty sure (correct me if I'm wrong) that one of the three songs she sang on Thursday ("My woman's transparency") was actually one of Peter's from Monday. She also pulled off a nice version of the final duet, sans partner.
On Monday night, they finished with two duets from Kurt Weill's (justifiably) little known operetta about Benvenuto Cellini, The Firebrand of Florence. The first, "You're far too near me", is a dialogue and would be impossible to do solo. Not so the second, so Cheryl gave us a passionate rendition of the slightly treacly "There'll be life, love and laughter" — not Weill's best moment, and definitely not Ira Gershwin's either, but as stated, All Cheryl is Good Cheryl. She followed with another Weill song, one she and Peter had sung as their encore on Monday — "Mackie Messer". Yes, Mack the Knife, sung with a very Weimar mix of seductive insouciance and black-hearted snarl. Without making too much effort to scale back the operatic scope of her voice, she nonetheless fell beguilingly into the cabaret idiom. I'd love to hear her in more of this sort of music.
Her encore was a surprise. I saw the disintegrating piece of sheet music brought to the piano and thought, what on earth can this be? It was Edward Charles' "When I have sung my songs". A parlor song, not that you'd have known it from Cheryl's searing, heartfelt delivery, which raised what could have been a little bit twee to a credo on the level of "Vissi d'arte". She's magic that way.