In review: Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

In review: Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

John Beckett

The pressure must have been high for Kitty Whately at Wigmore Hall on Monday afternoon - not only was she stepping in at the last possible minute for a recital meant to be given by Sarah Connolly, but this recital was live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. What’s more is that the repertoire is some of Britain’s favorite music: from Stanford to Warlock to Vaughan Williams, it was the early 20th century’s greatest hits from England, and much of the more experienced recital-goers in the audience probably knew parts of this program from memory.

But from Whately’s performance, you would never know the extenuating circumstances at play. Her demeanor was calm and elegant, her expression was engaged, and we felt like we were watching someone who just revels in the joy of singing. Together with pianist Joseph Middleton, the two acted as painters together, showing us beautiful scenes in a program inspired by themes of nature.

As popular as the music is from this time period, sometimes performances of these English songs can easily fall flat, as harmonically there were no huge discoveries made by Ivor Gurney, and no radical innovation in the songs of John Ireland. In many songs set around this time, there is a very noticeable lack of conflict in the text - songs like Silent Noon by Vaughan Williams depict a beautiful scene and describe a very powerful love, but does anything really happen over the course of three and a half minutes?

We were grateful that the duo brought a subtle sense of strife into music which could easily seem stagnant. A dragonfly flapping its wings became high drama from the interpretation of Whately. Stable, tonic harmony sounded more fleetingly impressionistic than properly Victorian from Middleton.

Pianist Joseph Middleton delivered integrity in story telling while rejecting a sentimentality that would over-romanticize the music. He extracted from the piano a multitude of colors and effects evoking nature during Ireland’s Earth’s Call, and reminded us of folk-like lyres during Howells’ King David.

The real triumph of the program for Whately was her performance of Joseph Horovitz’s “Lady MacBeth - A Scena”. In one short scene, the mezzo soprano generously gives us a mosaic from the aspects of character that make up this twisted woman from Shakespeare. We saw her flow through the delusions of success to the paranoia of blood on her hands, and as the song ended we yearned to see Whately perform a setting of this entire role.

It’s always so satisfying when an event like a change of soloist goes exceedingly well. You can hear Monday’s recital repeated on BBC Radio 3 on Easter Sunday at 1pm.

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