William Berger’s song cycle about insomnia should be an eye-opening highlight of a ten-day festival right by the Border
There’s a bit of confusion surrounding one of the key programmes in this summer’s Music at Paxton, the ten-day festival that opens a week tomorrow in the beautiful setting of John Adams’s 18th-century neo-Palladian stately home on the outskirts of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The programme in question is scheduled for 15 July, features the South African-born baritone William Berger, along with the cordial Scottish accompanist Iain Burnside, and goes by the title Insomnia: A Nocturnal Voyage in Song. Berger will sing a series of songs that are apposite to specific hours of the night and these are notated as such – hour after hour like a railway timetable – on the printed programme.
The trouble is, says festival music director Helen Jamieson, “people have taken these times to be the actual moment when they will be performed, so they have been phoning up to find out how this perceived all-night recital will work in practice”. And presumably whether sleeping bags are required.
The fact is, the hours are merely symbolic, and the recital will start at 6pm and run the normal course of a standard recital programme, so no-one need worry about a sleepless night.
Berger’s programme – which he originally conceived for the Lucerne Festival, but which has been adapted for the Paxton performance and its subsequent CD release this month on the Edinburgh-based Delphian label – is a potentially fascinating timeline of sensitively-chosen songs by composers as diverse as Mozart, Fauré, Wolf, Richard Rodney Bennett, Schubert, Liszt and (to mark the end of the journey) Richard Strauss’s heavenly musical sunrise, Morgen.
We sense the onset of darkness in the opening number, Mozart’s pre-Schubertian Abendempfindung, its sorrowful undertones key to setting the scene for the 17 songs that, together with the likes of Wolf’s Um Mitternacht and the more contemporary Sonnet by Hong Kong born Raymond Yiu, depict the troubled night of a man reflecting on the unrequited love of an unnamed beloved. Dreaming, disorientation and hallucination are central to the emotions expressed in Berger’s themed compilation.
The whole idea arose from the odd sleepless night Berger had trying to dream up something original for a golden opportunity he had been handed of singing at the internationally renowned Lucerne Festival following his success as a prizewinner at the 2012 Ernst Haefliger Singing Competition in Switzerland.
“Lucerne has a tendency to adopt one-word themes for its annual programmes, and in this case it was simply Nacht”, Berger explains. “I reckoned I couldn’t simply come up with a routine recital about night and the stars. What audience member would be impressed by that? Instead I saw it as an opportunity to be a little more creative; something unusual, perhaps, like making a story out of a sequence of songs.
“The narrative that developed was one about unrequited love, though not literally, and with a dark and sinister question hanging over it. The people in Lucerne liked it, and Paxton House seemed the perfect location to repeat it. The room there is packed with pictures [many of them on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland as part of the House’s role as an outstation for NGS], and the poetic nature of the songs will go so beautifully with them. I can imagine people listening and their eyes being drawn to the pictures on the walls.”
Berger, whose first appearance at Paxton was last year, will preface Insomnia with Schubert’s Liederkreis, Op 39 collection which, he says, with its unsettled and disturbed undertones, not least the beautiful Mondnacht, is a perfect complement to the main diet of songs. “They have a hauntingly bipolar quality which will fit the mood perfectly.”
Paxton isn’t the 32 year-old singer’s only Scottish date this summer. Recent successes in operatic roles with Garsington Opera (Papageno in Magic Flute) and with Vlaamse Opera, together with a current schedule of roles that extend from Vivaldi’s timely L’Olimpiade, again at Garsington, to the title role in Monteverdi’s Orfeo with La Nuova Musica, are running side by side with regular appearances north of the Border that extend to October and include the recording of two more CDs.
The first of these is with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and a recording of Haydn and Mozart arias and Cimarosa’s secular cantata Il maestro di Cappella for Linn Records, some of which will also feature in Berger’s live three-concert tour of Stirling Castle, Strathpeffer and Kingussie with McGegan and the SCO on 19-21 July.
“I’ve had a long-standing musical relationship with Nic,” says Berger, who is eternally grateful to McGegan for discovering him at a summer school in Japan when the young baritone was only 19. “I sang my debut with him in Germany at the age of 21, which had a bearing on me becoming one of the youngest ever singers, at 23, on English National Opera’s young artist programme.”
“That in itself was an experience that helped me buy time to develop my voice sensibly,” he adds. “The baritone is the most natural voice for a man, lying around the same register as the male speaking voice, yet it takes some time to mature. No-one really takes you seriously until you are 30, so only then do the interesting roles become available to you. But I had a really good four years at ENO gaining the kind of work experience that would stand me in good stead once the opportunities came my way.” One regular Scots opportunity over the past two years has been Berger’s developing relationship with the Edinburgh-based Ludus Baroque chamber orchestra and its director Richard Neville-Towle. Berger has already recorded an impressive Handel’s Alexander’s Feast with the group on the Delphian label, which went so well there are now positive plans to record the less well-known The Triumph of Time and Truth, also by Handel, which will be performed live in a new performing edition on 8 August in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirk, and again on 21 October in St Andrews. “This English version is much less well known than the standard Italian version,” he says.
Berger will also feature in the ensemble’s annual pre-Edinburgh International Festival performance of Bach’s B minor Mass, again in the Canongate on 9 August. He says: “I particularly enjoy working with Ludus Baroque. It’s like a family affair, real chamber music-making, where everyone spends time talking about and refining the music. And Richard is a master at instructing them.”
When I spoke to Berger last week, he was looking forward to a well-earned rest after the partial outdoor experience that is Garsington Opera, the spectacular glass pavilion on the Getty family estate in the Chiltern hills. “It’s a relief to be reaching the end of the run,” he told me before heading off for the final performance, “especially as we’ve been battered by the rain through much of it.”
Will the sun shine on Paxton next week? Currently that’s anyone’s guess, but Berger won’t be having sleepless nights worrying about it. That’s what he’s coming to sing about.
William Berger’s song recital is just one of many highlights in the near daily schedule of top quality concerts happening at Paxton House from 13-22 July.
The festivities begin with Perth-born pianist Alasdair Beatson’s debut at Paxton (13 July) both in an early evening solo performance of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, and later with the Scottish Ensemble in music by Schubert, Schumann and a new work by Alasdair Spratt.
Among this year’s string quartet recitals are one by the talented Carducci Quartet on 14 July (Haydn, Debussy and Mendelssohn) and a programme featuring Bartok’s Quartet No 1 by the Doric Quartet on 20 July.
Other chamber ensemble appearances include outdoor concerts by Arctic Winds (works by Ibert, Shostakovich and John Maxwell Geddes) on 22 July, and yet another festival appearance (they were spotted playing on street corners in East Neuk last week) by Pure Brass, pictured left, whose “Brass on the Grass” programme on 15 July promises anything but the ordinary.
Indoors at Paxton are duo recitalists Alina Ibragomova (violin) and Cedric Tiberghien (piano) in an all-Schubert programme on 22 July; vocal group Les Canards Chantants in Jazzdrigals, a mixed-genre programme on 21 July that speaks for itself; and solo recitals by harpsichordist Mahan Esvahani (19 July), guitarist Simon Thacker (18 July) and Tiberghien (21 July).
As always, there’s a Young Musicians double bill, this year featuring Flutes en Route and The Sutherland Duo on 17 July.
• Music at Paxton runs from 13-22 July, see www.musicatpaxton.co.uk
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