Love short-changed


Chloe Lankshear & Alan Hicks

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

October 28, 2021

Chloe Lankshear

Great to see the MDCH enterprise is forging ahead, maintaining a bit of a cash flow for its participating artists, even as tentative steps are being made back to normal practice. Still, the way we were is a long time coming back and, even though various premiers and ministers are promising the end of lockdowns, I don’t believe them. This whole pandemic experience has been a farrago of mismanagement, lies and delusion to the point where, even in the so-called safety of Queensland, I still think twice before engaging with non-vital contacts. Recitals and concerts are still going on but the price to be paid for attending live performances is wearing a mask – almost endurable for an hour’s worth of chamber music, lethal for The Marriage of Figaro.

Hence, this non-intrepid music-lover’s delight in digital offerings. Thursday’s duo recital was a perplexing business in some respects. For one thing, it was short, the whole thing lasting about 40 minutes. Not that brevity is unusual in vocal recitals but another offering or two would have spun this out to an acceptable length. Another odd occurrence was that Strauss’s song from the Op. 68 set, Amor, was repeated and, further down the track, the Er, der herrlichste von allen from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, disappeared – quite a loss in a series that either managed to put men (really? men only?) in a curious or negative light or lamented their absence/death; I, for one, would have welcomed a splendid outburst of praise, particularly the way Schumann wrought triumph out of self-abnegation by concluding with a repetition of the first heroic verse.

Whatever the case, we heard the Strauss lied twice – and Hicks made a false start on Debussy’s Apparition . . . or did he? I was looking at the score, not the screening from Chatswood’s Concourse concert hall, but it seemed to me that the introductory bar stopped and began again before Lankshear emerged from the E Major mist with appropriate dreaminess.

What we did hear proved varied enough. These musicians opened with the earliest music on their tour of love’s highways and byways: Purcell’s The Cares of Lovers from Shadwell’s masque on Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Real opera followed with Despina’s Act 1 aria in Cosi fan tutte, In uomini, in soldati. The double-dose of Strauss followed, then Debussy’s Mallarme setting and his pacific Beau soir to Paul Bourget’s gather-we-rosebuds verses. From about 45 years later came Nadia Boulanger’s J’ai frappe, before Lankshear and Hicks vaulted back to Handel’s Piangero la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare of 1724, 46 years after the Purcell/Shadwell collaboration and very well known to Opera Australia survivors of that company’s surrender to the countertenor vogue.

Rameau’s Tristes apprets, the first aria for Telaire (or, indeed, anybody human) in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (1737), completed a tripartite homage to the Baroque, although the French master’s deploration was partnered with something of a similar character in Ravel’s Kaddish, even if the Jewish anthem is a single-minded hymn of praise. On either side of these two European works came two settings from George Crumb’s 1947 Three Early Songs: Wind Elegy and Let it be forgotten, to texts by Sara Teasdale. These also are flavoured with leave-taking, and absence amounting to death. So, with a few detours, the night’s promise was fulfilled, moving to personal loss (if not always death) from observations on love’s vagaries.

Lankshear handled her Purcell like the mini-rhapsody it is, employing a variable metre to which Hicks reacted with fidelity. My only question mark arose with some portamenti, like that between the last two notes of bar 3; not inappropriate exactly but a touch too suggestive, although the soprano employed the device temperately, setting up a contrast with the semiquaver figuration that erupts in the first 12 bars and in bars 19 to 21. Even better followed with the Mozart aria, both musicians clear in articulation except for a slight sluggishness in Lankshear’s final vanita. As well, one of the piano notes sounded flat in the orchestral interludes – the A above Middle C?

With the twice-heard Strauss Amor, the singer displayed a suitable fluency in handling the key shifts and brought out a modified ebullience of attack in the song’s hectic action. Still, the five crotchets’ worth of ornamentation at the first lachelt didn’t register; less noticeable problems, like the short quaver in the middle of ihn die Glut made little difference to the singer’s fluency. Later, the trills on the high B and B flat of Flamme didn’t register and a late entry on Brentano’s last line was another misfire in a work that is quite disciplined despite its sprightly-looking pages.

The first Debussy, Apparition, found the musicians hurling themselves into the composer’s purple patches with impressive gusto, particularly the lushness of Et j’ai cru. For all that rich smoothness, I didn’t understand what was going on at the change from laisse to La cueillaison; my old 1926 Revue musicale score doesn’t show any need for a pause or a here-changeth-the-key-signature highlighting. No worries with Beau soir which is easier on the imagery and the harmonic shifts; Lankshear blended with Hicks’ muted output in a reading of light sensitivity, memorable for its control in those hushed final 9 bars.

Lili Boulanger’s brief song continued the implied despair of Bourget’s poem – actually, well beyond implication to definite despair, this duo milking it for its dramatic potential throughout the second stanza and into the start of the third where poet and composer become more frantic in their abandonment. Hicks impressed with his emphatic chords in bars 6 and 11 and the abrupt turn to gloom in the sepulchral concluding Lent stretch. I’d not come across the piece prior to this night but admired greatly its atmosphere of concise hysteria. As you might have anticipated, the Handel aria held a few oddities which simply amounted to editorial choices, I suppose, like delaying the octave leap at bar 20 and ironing out any rhythmic irregularities in the later reaches of Handel’s central Ma poi morta display of temperament. More to the point, Lankshear made a sensible gear-shift back to pathos at the return to Piangero, well-suited to the recital situation if not quite emphatic enough for a staged performance. At the end, that final dotted crotchet on avro could have been held a tad longer.

The first of the Crumb songs, Wind Elegy, presents immediately a nice keyboard flourish to illustrate its title’s first noun. The vocal line is congenial enough, although I lost track of it during the Sparrows mate in the eaves verse; however, the song’s conclusion is a gift for both interpreters – and for us listeners, too, with its unresolved quality illustrating the ambivalence between sleep and death. Later, Let it be forgotten impressed as a slow-moving, steady plaint, treated with careful consideration and heading to an engrossing languor in the last lines’ three similes and to the fine stroke of leaving the voice with the last word – literally.

Between the American works came the Rameau solo. As with certain previous pieces like the Purcell, this presented as dramatic but essentially restrained, stately in its delivery from both musicians and striking in those bars where the voice is left unaccompanied; but then, the whole aria is spartan (appropriately). My only question mark came with the extended semibreve on Non at bar 30, although you can understand why a singer would want to emphasize its singularity in the aria’s context even if you disrupt the funereal inevitability. Then, completing this gloomy grouping that covered the last seven offerings in this 11-part program, Ravel’s half kaddish (congregation only) enjoyed an informed interpretation for which Lankshear kept focus during the cantillation sequences . . . actually, the whole thing is a cantillation but the soprano treated it to a ‘pure’ outline, apart from some small interpolations like the elision at the end of venehemata that concludes the prayer’s second last line, as well as a pause before the last Amen which, to my mind, should flow straight on from ve’imru.

Despite its early conclusion, this recital served to exhibit Lankshear’s range which does show a fair level of accomplishment from hard-edged precision to a creamy-smooth full timbre. You could find sure delight in her French components but what lives in the memory well after Thursday’s transmission are her Crumb readings: clear in direction and output, the notes slotting into place without fretfulness, the composer’s understated lines floating out with convincing sincerity.