Dark consolations

RUSSIAN LULLABY

Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday October 4

                                                                  Merlyn Quaife

As depressing programs go, this hour’s music-making was remarkably positive and seamlessly organised.  Andrea Katz’s brainchild, Songmakers Australia, on this Slavs-only night featured two of the organization’s stalwarts in soprano Merlyn Quaife and tenor Andrew Goodwin, with mezzo Christina Wilson stepping in for regular Sally-Anne Russell.  Supported by Katz’s resolute accompaniment, these artists shared the first half’s honours in pairs of songs and duets by Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Kabalevsky although Goodwin enjoyed both duets as well as two solos while the female singers each had a duet collaboration and two solitary exposures.

None of this material was familiar – well, not to me.   Glinka, despite being the fons et origo of Russian music after the Enlightenment remains a mystery man in this country, apart from a couple of overtures, so the two extracts from his cycle A Farewell to St. Petersburg, Cradle Song and The Lark, whetted the appetite for more because of their individualistic lyrical attractiveness.  Quaife took the vocal line in the first but Goodwin joined in with a contribution I can’t trace; there’s a version for voice, cello and piano but this one for two voices and keyboard I can’t track down.

Similarly, The Lark  seemed to have Goodwin as its main protagonist while Wilson provided vocal counterpoint, but finding a two-voice version proved impossible, although the final line for tenor and mezzo in this piece made for one of the recital’s high-points for its emotional warmth and ideal balance.   And for those of us who thought Tchaikovsky’s melancholy sprang solely from an idiosyncratic personality, think again: the seeds are here, even in these two emotionally unpretentious songs.

As for Tchaikovsky, Goodwin sang one of the Sixteen Songs for Children, starting with Winter Evening, which opens benignly enough before moving into a grimmer landscape where a happy fireside domesticity gives way to reminders that, outside, the world is a stark place for the unfortunate.  Katz seized upon the postlude, giving it a confronting intensity and force that matched Goodwin’s unabashed rhetoric in Pleshcheyev’s two final stanzas. Then, the cycle’s next song, The Cuckoo, has an equally fortissimo conclusion and Goodwin surged through his page of onomatopoeic duplets while the piano thundered out its – approval? disapproval? impatience? or just an old-fashioned hurry to get to the end?

The two Mussorgsky pieces came from The Nursery song cycle and produced the most interesting music in this part of the recital, probably because of the composer’s lack of concern for the voice as anything but a vehicle for words.  Quaife sang the opening piece in the sequence, With Nurse, and made a mobile enough creature of this stop-start monologue with plenty of expressive detail and a well-etched contrast between the two verses.  She also sang the last completed piece in the two-part cycle, The Cat ‘Sailor’; another of the more striking settings of the composer’s own verses, this illustrated even more readily Mussorgsky’s craft in setting a text to a fitting melodic structure, the song moving from a regular rhythmic pattern to a near-parlando mode of action, well realised by both artists with a minimum of dynamic over-gilding.

As for the Kabalevsky pair, both given by Wilson, these came from the composer’s unexceptionable, if unexceptional, set of Seven Nursery Rhymes: There was an old woman, and I saw a ship a-sailing.  The first introduced us to the mezzo whose production was unflustered if unchallenged by this material, although her middle range has little distinctiveness about it, least of all in this context where Katz again gave full vent to an active piano component. .  The second piece, not a particularly interesting bagatelle. seemed to be toeing the party line in its Soviet schmaltz, although Wilson enjoyed the undemanding experience.

After this octet came Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry Op. 79, a deliberately sombre group of 11 songs written in the shade of the Holocaust, the 1948 Zhdanov denunciation of the composer (and others), and Stalin’s imposition of the Nazis’ Final Solution on his country’s Jewish population.  The sequence stands alone in Shostakovich’s output in its lack of a mediating filter, for its bitterness at his nation’s polity and his total sympathy with the victims of a state-run universal pogrom, and for a close identification with Jewish folk and klezmer musics.  This interpretation played with a straight bat, not overloading the tragedy that underpins every section of the cycle, in spite of some mordant humour in The good life and the final Happiness.  No, this singing trio  concentrated on direct simplicity and an unbending strength of delivery, eschewing the temptation to opt for sentimentality in wrenching pages like those in Lamentation for a dead child, Cradle song, and Winter.

In this performing context, Quaife was most comfortable, contributing significantly to the first two songs: duets with Wilson that began with hectic mourning, then moved to the similarly nervous reassurance of an ailing child.  Wilson’s solo Cradle song made its points concerning isolation and exile with plangent simplicity, although you might have asked for a more synchronous partnership at some of the ritardandi points.  Quaife and Goodwin worked through Before a long separation with an engrossing juxtaposition of despair and resignation expressed in a driving alternation of apostrophes before both voices join in the same plaint: the individuals representing the generations of lovers and families torn apart by an indifferent officialdom.

You became more conscious with each passing number what a dour world that Shostakovich is illustrating.  Quaife’s urgent Warning stood for every mother protecting her child from temptation as well as from the dark terrors that stalk the unwitting object of persecution.  The following The abandoned father for Wilson and Goodwin could have been amusing, a  Goldberg and Schmuyle study for the 20th century, except for its underpinning message of familial abandonment and disloyalty.

The musical atmosphere remains ironic in Song of misery which Goodwin negotiated with his trademark unrelenting clarity as he presented pastoral pictures, unexceptional in themselves, but hiding a depth of suffering and starvation; which is continued through all three voices in Winter where, at the conclusion to Goodwin’s description of an ill wife and child, the trio mourn the advent of a death-ridden season.  Goodwin proceeded to outline a Schubert-reminiscent The good life with a firm directness of address, contrasting the bad old days with the new age of the collective farm, the death-throes of Tsarist Russia turning into the Golden Age of Communism, suffering transmuted into mindlessness.

Quaife achieved even better in the penultimate Song of the girl where the cattle-herd seems to mimic a Song of the Auvergne in a picture of bucolic content until, at the end, we realize that this gaiety and high spirits are false, compulsorily imposed on singer.  Finally, Wilson bore the brunt of Happiness which should offer an optimistic uplift by depicting the cliches of worldly success and contentment, but the biting music shows that these are all false and the old pain from random murder and continual persecution lie just below the surface; for Russian Jewry, no ‘star shines above our heads now.’

The most significant quality of this cycle’s rendition was its non-stop nature, the songs merging with chilling effectiveness and bite as their surfaces cracked to reveal a nightmare world where words cannot be taken at face value and an eminently singable, even popular-sounding music veers on collapse into a dirge.  For anybody inclined to diminish Shostakovich’s negotiation of a knife-edge path of survival through the years of Stalin, this cycle stands as testimony to the composer’s compassion and anger at what was so obviously a disgrace and shame for the world after the revelations of 1945 but which continued without qualms of conscience for further decades behind the Iron Curtain.

And for those sad moral delinquents who think politics and music don’t mix, they should look on this wrenching song-cycle and (hopefully) despair.  Songmakers Australia has informed my year significantly by presenting it and accomplishing the undertaking with admirable fidelity.