WEAVERS OF SONG
Miriam Allan & Erin Helyard
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Wednesday September 21, 2022
Finishing this year’s Great Performers series from the Recital Centre, Allan and Helyard’s program was broadcast by the Australian Digital Concert Hall network. The night comprised six Haydn songs, six Schubert lieder, a brief set of six variations by Mozart, another set of six variations by Mozart’s friend Josepha Auernhammer on his Der Volgelfanger bin ich ja aria, and three of the D.780 Moments musicaux. An unexpected, quickly applied encore turned up Mozart’s Abendempfindung, the composer’s longest song and a somewhat stagey finale to the Allan/Helyard musical partnership before the Australian-born soprano returns, I assume, to her home in England and the fortepianist lays down his mantle as the Recital Centre’s artist-in-residence.
The event proved to be rich in eloquence, neither artist handling the Haydn pieces with prissiness or studied restraint, such as we’ve heard too often from British female singers who have accepted the odd idea that this particular composer needs kid-glove treatment and the more sexless you can make your line, the better. That approach can’t work in something as rambunctious as The Sailor’s Song which came across with plenty of vim and bravado, a close cousin to Rule Britannia and that bulldoggie Henry Wood that appears at every Last Night of the Proms. Most of the other Haydn works enjoyed full-bodied handling, the set opening with She never told her love which, thanks to its powerful accompaniment solos, gave us time to adjust to the clangour of Helyard’s instrument. Allan didn’t have the happiest of openings, with a slight production falter on the first syllable; still, the piece came over with a firm blend of melancholy and regret, true to Viola’s intent behind her lines.
Another familiar song, My mother bids me bind my hair, gave us an opportunity to admire Allan’s breath control and line-shaping in a pretty substantial score; not to mention her attention to details like the quaver rests across And while I spin my flaxen thread. Helyard linked these opening three songs with improvised (I think) post-/preludes, taking us from A Pastoral Song to O tuneful Voice where Allan moved to a rich dramatic vein, reaching a climax with a cadenza at with a vestal’s care and preserving a sense of purpose through all those repetitions of that it may ne’er decay on the last page.
For the second bracket of three Haydns, Allan began with The Wanderer and a full Gothic interpretation, Helyard’s fortepiano ominously doubling the vocal line for a goodly amount of time. Not that this reinforcement is uncommon in these six songs; vide A Pastoral Song, and The Spirit’s Song, this latter matching The Wanderer for intensity, notably from the fortepiano’s impressive loud chords, e.g. bars 4 and 6, with Allan wringing as much drama from this scena as possible without falling into Grand Guignol overkill at those suspenseful fermata points. It made for a well-judged contrast with The Sailor’s Song that concluded the evening’s Haydn expedition with amiable buoyancy.
Helyard’s rendition of Auernhammer’s busy variations distinguished itself for a certain piquancy of address, one where the introduction of a decelerando or six broke up some predictable matter. However, each section had its original touches, although the return of the song’s last 10 bars finishing off each variation was a very welcome return to base camp. The performer’s precision was hard to fault, with only a left hand mishap at the start of Variation 6 raising an eyebrow – and the insertion of a final solitary bass G (well, it isn’t in my old Artaria edition).
A few mishaps marred the delivery of Mozart’s work – in the theme itself and in the first two variations. But Variation 3 sounded immaculate, spice added through some clever ornamentation. By the time Helyard arrived at the second half of the last variation, he felt comfortable enough to take liberties with the score and toyed with its demi-semiquavers and his instrument’s expressive capabilities. Not particularly taxing Mozart, but holding individual flights at every turn of the page, the whole finishing with a reassuringly even-handed coda.
For her Schubert bracket, Allan included three master-songs and three entertainments. She opened with Auf dem Wasser zu singen with firm undercurrents in play and a tendency to emphasize each bar’s heavy accents; hence, the pleasure to be found in her long notes on Tanzet, Atmet and Selber. In these operating conditions, the fortepiano depicted heavy water rather than the usual ripples. Another slight attacking flaw emerged at the noun in the first phrase of Du bist die Ruh, yet the following pages’ vocal line flowed past with compelling commitment and clear sympathy, the whole rising to a passionate highpoint at the first erhellt while its repetition was given with appropriate restraint. Both performers made a definite character out of Standchen, Helyard’s mandolin/guitar stand-in more percussive than the smooth burbling we are accustomed to from your everyday piano. It was hard to understand why Allan didn’t give full value to the first note of Ach! sie flehen dich unless it was to heighten the expostulation’s drama (really?). But the interpretation as a complete unit made a considerable impact for its hard edges (even if Helyard muffled/muted his postlude) and rich breadth of timbre.
Trauer der Liebe is a small semi-gem which moved slowly enough to give us a more concentrated exposure to Allan’s curvaceous phrasing. Helyard made a change into triplets for the third stanza, reverting to the regulation music in the 5th last bar, thereby keeping himself and us entertained in fairly bland surroundings. Minnelied, also a page long, was given straight, without any problems apart from something odd in the keyboard during the second-last bar of Stanza 1. Here is another charming lyric, in this reading a vocalist’s delight because of the accompaniment’s lack of distinction. Another three-stanza, one-page lied is Seligkeit, a familiar, sunny delight-in-life creation, treated to a bounce-rich reading with both musicians who freshened up their last run-through with some innovations.
The Schubert songs were divided in half by Helyard’s performance of the Moments musicaux Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Of these pieces, the No. 2 in A flat Major impressed me as one of the recital’s highpoints because of the player’s ability to shape repetitious phrases and clauses with a skillful malleability and his command of shape in its several sections, ending with a moving final 18 bars in A flat in which the repeated chords and their subterranean variants made for one of those occasions when Schubert takes you close to the ideal. For the familiar F minor Allegro moderato, Helyard inserted a piece of paper into his fortepiano’s bass reaches, thereby producing an occasional side-drum rattle, even if the declared intention was to imitate a bassoon.
I’d never heard in live performance the No. 4 Moderato in C sharp minor; having experienced it, I can see why it doesn’t attract keyboard players as much as its predecessor. However, the middle D flat pages were a small revelation, not least for Helyard’s careful outlining of their inbuilt grace and tenderness, And the final five bars of this moment are a fine and moving creation/summation, here realized with touching skill and empathy.
I seem to recall Helyard saying that he and Allan have been presenting this program for some time, this night in Melbourne the end of their mutual endeavours. I, for one, was very pleased to have heard the program which, despite my nitpicking, was packed with excellent music-making. The whole exercise served as a counter-argument to that trite observation about ‘those who can’t, teach’; both these musicians are distinguished teachers and, simultaneously, top-notch performers.