The venue itself was ideal, and, blessed with perfect weather and a good sized audience, we could be pretty sure that we were in for a lovely afternoon. His choice of programme, Schumann’s “Liederkreis” (Op. 39) and Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel” proved ideal material for a young but remarkably mature voice, and he was fortunate in having secured the services of Caroline d’Cruz on the piano with whom he clearly has a close musical rapport.
Schumann’s “Liederkreis”, the name simply means song cycle, is one of the great cycles of the nineteenth century. It was written in 1840 – Schumann’s so-called “Year of Song”. The flowering of his love affair with Clara Wieck and his marriage in 1840 resulted in Schumann writing over a hundred songs that year. Set to intensely personal poems by Joseph Eichendorff, the overall narrative thread and the human emotions they express are central to our understanding of the music. This being so, it is a great shame we did not have an English translation of the titles or words of the songs. One reads that in “Liederkreis” Schumann himself seems to be living through the experiences of the poet’s characters. Ben Craw’s rich baritone voice, his facial expressions too, were full of dramatic intensity – clearly something was happening, but to a considerable extent we had to guess quite what it was.
Nevertheless, the contrasting emotions of the various songs in “Liederkreis” enabled the singer to present us with a series of short (and some not so short) sketches in which he could demonstrate his considerable vocal skills. He has an impressive range, but although some of the more reflective passages in his upper register were hauntingly beautiful, there was more drama lower down. There was considerable power too and the longer phrases were invariably well controlled and beautifully shaped.
Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel” were written between 1901 and 1904 to words by Robert Louis Stevenson, and offer a British take on the German “wayfarer” cycles. As a member of the audience I was certainly on more comfortable ground. Not only were the titles of the songs in English, but Ben Craw’s diction was so clear that we could understand almost every word. (Even so, though, I would have liked to have had them in front of me!) Craw’s “Englishness” came through strongly in these songs too, and although the cycle itself does not present a story as such, there was a great sense of personal involvement. “Give to me the life I love” the vagabond sings over the marching chords in the opening number. I suspect this youthful singer, on the brink of his career, is looking for a life he loves as well. There was richness here in both tone and dynamics giving the performance an intensity and real sense of drama.
Both cycles received deservedly loud applause and the recital concluded with Britten’s charming arrangement of “O Waly Waly”.
Ben Craw has a fine voice, he performs in a confident and relaxed style and, as a young man with many years of musical development ahead of him, who knows what the future holds. He is already experienced in the world of opera and oratorio and he is clearly developing into an accomplished lieder singer as well. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here – his is certainly a name worth looking out for.
PS I am sure Ben is being given advice right, left and centre and with luck he is learning to distinguish between what is sound and what is best ignored. Two little bits from me: it is probably my age, but I have an aversion to people who take plastic bottles of water onto the stage with them; speak to your audience – a few well chosen words of welcome and thanks will win you friends everywhere and get the audience on your side from the word go.