Looking forward to her performance of Elgar's Sea Pictures with the Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Ben Gernon in Huddersfield Town Hall on Sunday 25 February, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge tells us about her relationship with the song cycle.
"My first experience of singing Sea Pictures was with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – conducted by Ben Gernon – in Elgar’s beloved home town of Malvern. It was so magical to have the opportunity to perform the songs there for the first time. It also happened to be the anniversary of the composer’s death, and members of the Elgar Society who were present invited me to a gathering the following day at his graveside at St Wulstan’s Church in Little Malvern. It made it all a very memorable occasion: a beautiful insight into Elgar’s life, and an opportunity to meet lots of people who are passionate about celebrating him. The more I learn about him and his music, the more I understand why!
Sea Pictures is a suite of five contrasting pictures that conjure up images of the mystery and magnitude of the sea - the moment when you look out and it takes your breath away, seeing the horizon across a vast expanse of water. At times the wonder of the sea is indescribable, but Elgar knew so well how to portray this through music that captures our emotions and imagination. The songs are an adventure, providing us as onlookers with moments to observe the scene, to hold each other close through all weathers, discover an ethereal calm, reflect upon the mystical qualities of the landscape and to contemplate the power of the crashing waves.
The five texts are each by a different poet and Elgar works a miracle in expressing the power of the sea through his settings. The music and text also convey so beautifully our own vulnerabilities, particularly in the second song, ‘In Haven’ with words written by Elgar’s wife Alice. It is perhaps the simplest of all the Sea Pictures, and through its three strophic verses Elgar allows us to treasure the intimacy and unity of two people. This work is a complete gift.
As part of my initial preparations to sing the Sea Pictures, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss the songs with the world-renowned mezzo soprano Dame Janet Baker. I had previously worked with her in coaching on the RPS/YCAT Philip Langridge Mentoring Scheme and she very kindly agreed to speak with me about the songs.I have long admired Dame Janet’s recording of Sea Pictures, which I had listened to during my student days at Royal Northern College of Music. It was a dream come true to be able to discuss the score in detail with her, to talk about the composer’s intentions and about how as singers we embark upon interpreting the piece and tackling its challenges.
It is always really inspiring to gain perspective and advice like this, and to have the opportunity to reflect on it – preferably for this piece somewhere by the sea (any excuse!) One of my very favourite seaside places is Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast. I have visited there for many years with my family and spent lots of special times there. I never cease to be enthralled and inspired by the changing mood of the sea and landscape – it is one of the most picturesque harbours in the UK. I’ve also spent some time there with my Sea Pictures score and Elgar’s perfect soundtrack!
Since my initial performance of Sea Pictures with orchestra, I have also performed the songs with piano accompaniment, as they were once performed for Queen Victoria at Balmoral. They have worked beautifully in intimate settings such as Pembroke College (with Joseph Middleton), in Dorchester Abbey (with James Baillieu), and at Leeds College of Music for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast (with Jonathan Fisher). I am excited to be returning to Leeds College of Music to perform the songs again with Jonathan for this year’s Leeds Lieder Festival, followed by a recital at the Portico Festival of Ards in Ireland for which I’ll be reunited with James Baillieu.
So far I have resisted the temptation to wear a mermaid outfit complete with fishtail, as Dame Clara Butt did for the first performance of the songs at the Norwich & Norfolk Festival in 1889 - but give it time! I would have loved to have been there that night.
As with any music, with any artist, year on year these are pieces that are growing with me. I am so grateful to have the chance to explore them in fully orchestrated form with the brilliant Orchestra of Opera North. I have had the privilege of sharing some great times with them in the operas Giulio Cesare, La Clemenza di Tito and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and now in Don Giovanni as part of the Fatal Passions season.
I absolutely love performing English song repertoire and Elgar’s music has a special place in my heart that only grows stronger the more I get to know his work – he has brought me so much pleasure already in my life, as I know he does for so many people. So it’ll be a total joy to share this experience with the Orchestra of Opera North, Ben and the audience in Huddersfield as we ride the waves together!"
Kathryn Rudge performs Elgar's Sea Pictures with the Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Ben Gernon in Distant Shores: Mozart, Elgar and Dvořák, the next concert in the Kirklees Concert Season at Huddersfield Town Hall on Sunday 25 February.
Kathryn Rudge. Credit: Sussie Ahlburg
Sir Edward Elgar
Whitby Harbour (detail), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Opera North's Don Giovanni, Winter 2018: John Savournin as Leporello, Kathryn Rudge as Zerlina and William Dazeley as Don Giovanni. Credit: Bill Cooper.