Concert review by Tony Scotland

Nelly Miricioiu

Wednesday 20th May 2009

St. John's Church


The songs of Lennox Berkeley have been performed by all sorts of singers - from counter-tenors and trebles to contraltos and operatic basses - but they've rarely been sung by a diva steeped in the bel canto tradition of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

It was a gamble which might not have come off. Too much bravura could have overwhelmed the delicate subtleties of Berkeley's little masterpieces. But Nelly Miricioiu is an artist of sensitivity and chose her four songs with care, picking only those which struck her as especially romantic or dramatic ('like little tableaux'): two of the Early French Songs which Berkeley wrote at Oxford in the mid-twenties ('d'un Vanneur de blé aux vents' and 'Rondeau') and two of the Cocteau settings which he wrote in Paris as a student of Boulanger at the end of the twenties (the Tombeaux 'd'un Fleuve' and 'de Don Juan'). To these four songs Nelly brought the bel canto hallmarks of beauty, elegance, flexibility and assured technique, with a liberal dash of her own natural warmth and wit. 'You see why I love him', she said at the end of the first short song, as the audience gasped at the idea of Ophelia's sister catching her madness and throwing herself into the sea. Nor were there many in the large audience at St. John's who didn't respond to the Spanish flavour and the black humour of the last song, in which the don stalks the latest belle - who turns out to be Death.

In a lengthy introduction to the Berkeley songs, which had been judiciously placed after Ravel's Five Greek Songs and before the Willow Song from Berkeley's favourite Verdi opera Otello, Nelly recalled that she had first met Lennox and Freda Berkeley in the early 1980s, shortly after fleeing Ceausescu's Romania and seeking political asylum in Britain, where she has lived ever since. After making her UK debut as Violetta in Scottish Opera's La Traviata, she recalled that she gave a private recital for the Berkeleys and their friends at home in Little Venice, and was soon invited to sing the same role in an English-language production of the Verdi opera at English National Opera. (As it happens she'll be repeating that role, in Italian, with the Chelsea Opera Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on Sunday 21 February next year; book now!)

Nelly also spoke of Berkeley's first meeting with Ravel in London in 1925, when he played the double role of interpreter and minder; of the great Frenchman's advice that the student Berkeley should go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger; and of the deep friendship that grew up between the two elfin composers during late-night sessions at Ravel's favourite bar, le Boeuf sur le toit.

The major part of Nelly Miricioiu's marathon programme at St John's reflected some of the roles which have made her famous all over the world: Elisabetta's emotional aria from Act V of Verdi's Don Carlos, Isabella's air from Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, Lady Macbeth's dramatic entrance aria from Verdi's Macbeth, and - as encores, no less - 'Vissi d'arte' from Tosca, the Act I aria from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur (which Nelly sang in London in February), and, at the end of it all, Leonora's great prayer for peace from Verdi's La Forza del Destino. In addition, this phenomenal artist found room for songs by Rodrigo, Donizetti, and her fellow Romanians Nicolae Bretan (whose settings of poems by Mihai Eminescu she dedicated to her mother Maria - Peter Pan, painter and poet), Tiberiu Brediceanu and George Enescu. For any soprano such a programme would have been daunting, for a woman who admits to being 57 it was nothing less than a tour de force, but her legendary stamina is as undiminished as her charisma, the voice more potent than ever - and the audience responded as though she were Callas.

The piano accompanist was Nelly's former voice coach and constant friend David Harper, who has supported her with finesse, understanding and generosity throughout her career in the west. That two such distinguished artists should choose to give the music of Lennox Berkeley their own special polish - and reveal it to a new audience - is something for which the Berkeley Society should be truly grateful.