Ruby Hughes’ New Vocal Recital

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MAHLER: Rückert-Lieder Nos. 3-7. BERG: Altenberg Lieder. SAMUEL: Clytemnestra / Ruby Hughes, sop; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Jac van Steen, cond / Bis SACD-2408

Soprano Ruby Hughes is the latest British soprano to come up in the New Fashion: not by winning international competitions (the path since the mid-1980s), not by wowing international audiences, but by winning relatively local British competitions, specifically for Handel and/or Mozart, by singing minor roles in operas conducted by René Jacobs, and by performing Bach, Handel, Monteverdi and other dead composers’ music at Welsh, Scottish and British festivals. (Oh yes, she has incidentally also sung in Potsdam and Schwetzinger.)

To her credit, however, she has chosen “relatively” modern music for this recital, the only piece here written after 1930 being Rhian Samuel’s Clytemnestra, which after its 1994 premiere has lain dormant for 21 years before it was revived by Hughes with the BBC NOW Orchestra and conductor Tecwyn Evans. This is its first recording.

Hughes uses her pretty but very lightweight voice intelligently and with a good interpretation of text—better, I would say, than even some very famous and larger-voiced sopranos and mezzos of the past—but it takes some getting used to. What I mean by this is that we’re not quite used to someone who would sing the Priestess in Aïda or Papagena in Die Zauberflöte doing Mahler lieder. The voice is light and silvery but has no real “body” to the tone; she sounds a bit like Erna Berger or Elisabeth Schumann. Yes, I like the voice as such, but I don’t recall Berger ever singing Mahler lieder, and probably for much the same reason. A certain amount of richness in the mid-range is required to make a good effect in these songs.

But, as I say, her powers of interpretation are excellent and I really liked Jac van Steen’s conducting, which moves the music forward while retaining a light, airy orchestral sound. Then again, any orchestral texture thicker than this would undoubtedly bury Hughes’ ultra-light timbre. Her voice is, however, perfectly suited to the Altenberg-Lieder, much the same way that Bethany Beardslee’s voice was: a bright, laser-focused sound without the slightest trace of a lyric soprano’s low register.

Interestingly, I couldn’t tell from just listening when the Berg songs ended and Clytemnestra began, so alike did the music sound. This doesn’t mean that it’s entirely derivative music, only that it leans so much on the Bergian aesthetic that the casual listener could not tell it apart. Ironically, Hughes’ English diction is entirely unclear. As the late Gwen Catley used to say, “I cannot hear the words, neither their beginnings nor their endings.” Only an occasional one-syllable word like “watch,” “light” or “on,” comes across clearly; otherwise, she is too hung up on producing those light, silvery tones to bother enunciating her native language clearly. And here, too, her interpretation is far too mild and generic to bring Clytemnestra across with all the emotion and fire the character needs. Given a fierier interpreter like Cecilia Bartoli, and this piece could really make an effect. The way Hughes sings it, she might as well be reciting her shopping list at the grocery. And here, too, I felt that conductor van Steen was too detached from the music, conducting it perfunctorily. It’s a shame because it could have been a very interesting and involving piece.

Kind of a peculiar album, then, neither fish nor fowl as they like to say. Listen to it yourself and be the judge.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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