I did not think Scottish mezzo Catriona Morison was quite prepared for the extended applause and cheering that, before she had sung a note, welcomed her to the stage of Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall in her home city. Coming from the outside as a wildcard finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2017, she jointly won the Song Prize and went on to become the first British singer to win the coveted Main Prize. Trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (who had two other contenders at Cardiff), I remember being impressed by her performance there as Nerone in L'incoronazione di Poppea in 2012.

Catriona Morison © Julie Howden
Catriona Morison
© Julie Howden

Morison is presently gaining valuable operatic experience as an ensemble member with Oper Wuppertal, with a busy schedule, so UK engagements thus far are rare. This Edinburgh appearance with the acclaimed Malcolm Martineau as her accompanist marked her first ever professional recital, and a welcome chance for the home crowd to express their congratulations.

Morison’s choice of Romantic repertoire built on her Cardiff performances, with a wide range of material showcasing her gift of inhabiting a song and completely owning it in performance. Four songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, delightful German folk poems, set the scene, perfectly suiting Morison’s strong, rich, earthy timbre, but each with an individuality that was well-crafted. “St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish” was a light-hearted story, Morison drawing us in by her changing dynamic, all pointed up by Martineau’s delicious, watery ripples. The sudden contrast with a doomed, starving child in “Mutter, ach Mutter! es hungert mich” was like a dark cloud suddenly covering the sun, emerging to light in “Who thought up this song?” Morison relishing the playful runs, her mischievous grin radiating warmth as Martineau’s animated accompaniment built to a climax.

Pierre Vellones’s Cinq épitaphes are a set of sharp, wry observations on the departed, mostly uncomplimentary but written in a spirit of fun. Morison’s elegant, willowy figure stayed fairly static on stage, yet with the turn of her head here or a raised eyebrow there she instantly conveyed a range of emotions, from the husband who was happy to bury his wife; the doctor who killed too many patients; a lazybones and, best of all, the pious woman who dressed primly for Vespers on Sunday, but relished the other days when she got up to all sorts of other things, Morison’s coquettish smile leaving no doubts at all as to what these were.

Five romantic poems from Brahms ended the first half, which Morison made the heart of the evening. Beginning “In the Churchyard” as Martineau gently set the scene, her voice was a study in control, holding us completely spellbound, then opening up in “The May Night”, demonstrating a generous vocal range and unleashing a sense of passion. She seemed to be especially enjoying this repertoire, completely lost in the “Sapphic Ode” and demonstrating intelligent phrasing and extraordinary control in “Stealthily the Moon Rises” while Martineau’s piano fountain flowed.

Morison showed us a whole range of characterful singing in six songs by Greig, mellow and bright in the upper register in “Gruß”, leaning into the phrases in the soulful “Dereinst, Gedanke mein” and playfully coy as she told the story of two lovers in the fields. The mood changed again with three songs by Fauré, with a lovingly sung “Nell’ and ‘Après un rêve”, but the highlight was the haunting maritime lullaby “Le long du Quai, les grands vaisseaux” with Martineau’s tender, cradle-rocking piano and Morison conveying the mixture of heartbreak and anxiety, building in passion as the sailors depart leaving their wives and children behind.

Finally, Claire Liddell’s arrangement of Scots songs: “Scot’s Wha Hae”, “Comin Thro’ the Rye” and “Ye banks and braes o bonnie Doon” were delivered with sparkly panache. They were a home-crowd pleaser, topped off by a lively encore of Buxton Orr’s “One Man Band”.

For Morison, it will be back to her day job singing Hansel in Germany, but there are UK engagements in the pipeline which hopefully will see her performing in opera as well as the concert platform. For us at the Queen’s Hall, this recital was an exciting January treat – the Edinburgh lass did us proud.

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