The artistic core of this interestingly programmed recital given by the joint-winner of the Song Prize and the winner of the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition were the two Schumann cycles that fell before and after the interval. The narration of Frauenliebe und -leben can, owing to the historical period during which the text was written, occasionally come over as mawkish but here the symbiotic relationship between Catriona Morison and her pianist Simon Lepper was so finely attuned that it became a searing, almost uncomfortable, experience. Morison’s voice is wonderfully rich, particularly in its lower registers but she can bring in colours that evoke a sense of fervour or desolation to the core warmth that suits the emotional journey of this work well. In the opening song, where the young woman sees the man for the first time, Morison bought out a sense of awe underpinned by timidity that was affecting, following this with an increasing mood of excitement held in check as he first woos and then proposes to her. The nervousness of the marital preparations was captured supremely well with Lepper, here brilliantly yet unobtrusively weaving in the keyboard's depiction of the wedding procession into the mix.
The pangs and early joys of motherhood followed by the devastation of marital loss were full of contrast, Morison evincing the shock and bleak numbness with intense restraint and Lepper following by weighting the piano part ideally, ensuring the listener registered the repetition of the theme from the first song. Tellingly, there was absolute silence at the end.
These vocal and pianistic qualities also infused the less familiar cycle of songs to poems of Mary Stuart, many of which are farewells, laments or prayers, to which Morison brought a rapt yet introspective quality. Regal feistiness certainly emerged in the letter to Queen Elizabeth I, culminating in a pretty forceful declamation of the final words "dem wir vertraut" (in which we trust) – the final consonant sounding in the hall long after the piano has ceased to play. Stirring stuff.
The opening cycle Six Songs by Grieg were a gentle introduction to the partnership with each of the miniatures being brought to full life in their variety. Lepper brought out the keyboard repetitions of the vocal lines in ‘Lauf der Welt’ very effectively, and Morison bestowing flexibility and freedom to the secretive nightingale’s calls of ‘Tandaradei’.
Lively colours and humour reached the programme with the works by Brahms and Pauline Viardot. Viardot was one of the great singers of the mid-19th century, inspiring many composers such as Gounod, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and Meyerbeer, and writers such as Turgenev and George Sands, who immortalised her in her novel Consuelo. She had originally wanted to be a composer, and this performance of three songs to texts by Eduard Mörike, a poet of whom she was reportedly very fond, show her to have had talent in this sphere. The songs are full of startling rhythmic variety, keyboard colour and flourish matched to vocal lines of interest. Morison was at her most playful in the middle song about an impish water-sprite’s daughter and her encounter with a fisherman. Understandably, since these are not exactly regular repertoire, Morison was a little more score-bound, but nonetheless still managed to communicative effectively. Her diction and sense of line was strong.
The Brahms songs that brought the published programme to a close were all drawn from the 49 songs that comprise the Deutsche Volkslieder (WoO.33). Showing off the entire range of her voice and infusing the tone with lightness and brightness Morison sang these with humourful charm and Lepper accompanied with a surehanded and responsive touch. These certainly engaged the mind and ear, notably the insistence of the child in ‘Och Moder’ and the siren qualities of the woman in ‘Wie Komm' ich denn zur Tür hinein?
Morison and Lepper gave us one bravura Viardot encore, this time to French words evoking the delights and allure of Madrid.