The Richardson Chamber Players focused its final program of the season on “words in the English language that carry poetic promise,” and decided “England” was one of those words. The music selected for Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium also emphasized spring, and fortunately the weather cooperated. Those who chose to come inside on Sunday afternoon heard pieces which not only evoked England and spring, but also demonstrated the Chamber Players’ mission of bringing lesser-known masterpieces of unusual combinations of instruments to the forefront.
Few countries take their countryside more seriously than England, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle Along the Field used solo violin and voice to depict a pastoral atmosphere. Soprano Rochelle Ellis and violinist Anna Lim presented five of these songs with both expressiveness and simplicity.
Ms. Ellis made her first entrance in the opening “We’ll to the Woods no More” with a great deal of resonance and fullness of sound. The pentatonic scale from Ms. Lim’s violin line gave the song an Eastern feel, and the two performers gave this first song a tapered finish. Throughout the five songs, Ms. Ellis and Ms. Lim brought out the folk elements of the set, from a Scottish bagpipe-type drone from the violin and clarity in the poignant text from Ms. Ellis. Ms. Ellis showed solid composure singing extensive a cappella passages, holding her own well against a violin line which was often contrary.
Tenor David Kellett also chose to present a song cycle of a British composer, but with a much different musical palette. Benjamin Britten composed a large amount of vocal music for British tenor Peter Pears, who possessed a unique tenor voice. In 1976 Britten was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II to write a piece for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. The resulting A Birthday Hansel (“hansel” is a Scottish word for “gift”) combined the tenor voice with the intricacies and distinctive colors of the harp. Mr. Kellett was joined in selections from A Birthday Hansel by harpist Elaine Christy, harp instructor at Princeton University.
Like Vaughan Williams, Britten drew from Scottish influences for this song cycle, stretching the limits of both the tenor voice and the harp. As Ms. Christy explained to the audience, Britten composed extensively for the harp, but demanded unorthodox patterns, fingerings, and intervals. Ms. Christy showed no trouble at all with the Scottish bagpipe and drum impressions, flowing lines and repeated patterns extending into the highest register of the instrument. She achieved effects rarely heard from the harp, an instrument often buried in orchestral texture. Mr. Kellett, despite his protestations of the challenges of singing music composed for the unique voice of Peter Pears, sang with lyricism and clean diction.
Two instrumental works rounded out the program: a Folk Tale in G Minor for Cello and Piano by early 20th-century British composer Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Minor. Bax composed his Folk Tale on the heels of World War I, and the work clearly reflects the impact of the war on England. Cellist Susannah Chapman and pianist Jennifer Tao brought out Bax’s fascination with Ireland in the long melodic lines for the cello and precisely-timed keyboard accompaniment. One could easily imagine meandering in the countryside as different life events and weather pass by. Ms. Chapman in particular showed a very pure sound in the higher register of the cello while sustaining the extended melodic lines well.
Elgar’s Quintet also dates from 1918 and claims not to reflect World War I, but one can easily hear poignancy and nostalgia in the lush music. Violinists Anna Lim and Stephanie Liu, violist Shmuel Katz, cellist Ms. Chapman and pianist Ms. Tao blended together seamlessly to create a smooth musical ambiance, becoming particularly lush in the first movement. The five musicians built in ferocity toward the end of the first movement, tempered with sweet duets between first violin and cello, and second violin and violist. The second movement Adagio was rich and hymnlike, as one could hear a cathedral rising in the distance of the countryside. With a majestic close to the work, the musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players succeeded in capturing a reflective side of England.