Dark consolations


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.

Love, loud and clear


Songmakers Australia

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

April 13, 2016

Songmakers Australia (www.melbournerecital.com.au)

Opening this year’s short account – two recitals only – the vocal quartet and pianist that make up the Songmakers Australia personnel headed for the top with a program of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, although not necessarily familiar pages from these keystone markers of the song repertoire.   Mozart’s Six Notturni, for example, are rarities on disc and in performance; not surprising when you take into account the required accompaniment of three basset horns in four of them, with two clarinets and one basset for the others.  On this occasion, the Songmakers’ founder, Andrea Katz, played a piano reduction which robbed the small-framed scraps of a textural interest but you had to wonder if much of that buzzing colour would have stood out under the combined voices of soprano Merlyn Quaife, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell and bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos.

In fact, these vocal trios are dubious in their attribution to Mozart, although the authorities are as one in sourcing the final one, Mi lacero tacendo, to the composer while divvying up responsibility for the earlier ones between Mozart and a member of the Jacquin family for whose entertainment they were written.  Whatever the case, the writing is cleverly contrived so that the voices enjoy a balance in performance, these singers by now well used to collaborating.  Even so, you won’t find any shrinking violets in this ensemble and I suspect that some of these mainly binary-form bagatelles enjoyed a sturdiness of attack that they would rarely have experienced, but the final Mi lagnero tacendo, through-composed, brought to mind, more than its companions, the Act 1 trio in Cosi fan tutte, prefiguring Soave sia il vento by seven years but giving hints of its  elegantly drawn phrasing and slightly chromatic bite.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin gave a masterly account of Beethoven’s seminal cycle An die ferne Geliebte, investing each of the six linked songs with  a ringing force that proved more than a little compelling in the Salon’s closed space.   Recently, Goodwin sang the Evangelist’s part for the Melbourne Bach Choir’s Good Friday performance of the St. Matthew Passion and thereby brightened an experience that can be more penitential than needed.  This Beethoven exposure gave fresh insights into the quality of his voice: evenly-applied colour across most of his range, bright and crisp articulation, absolute confidence in pitching, penetrating individual richness to each sustained note, no hesitation in taking on  slightly awkward melodic arches as in the first part of the final Nimm sie hin denn, or lending an interest in passages where the vocal line stalls like the monotone at the centre of the second song, Wo die berge so blau.  Further to this, Goodwin made an excellent counter-force to Katz’s strong delivery of the accompaniment; a persuasive alternative to the often soppy, Schubert mimicry of many another interpretation.

Schumann’s Spanisches Liederspiel came to me – and quite a few of us, I think – as a complete novelty.   None of the songs was even vaguely familiar; seven of them are duets or quartets but not even the solos rang any reminiscent bells.  With all four vocalists ready and keen, the original 12-song cycle took off with gusto from Quaife and Russell’s volatile reading of Erste Begegnung, through to Goodwin and Dinopoulos’s gentler Intermezzo. Several pieces stood out: Quaife’s ardent reading of In der Nacht, joined half-way through by Goodwin who continued the lambent intensity of this interpretation; Dinopoulos enjoying the lilting jauntiness of Flutenreicher Ebro (one of the songs Schumann cut from the cycle after its premiere) and struggling to keep up in Der Contrabandiste which, even if its tempo direction is Schnell, would have gained from a less pell-mell approach; the elation that characterised each verse of the concluding Ich bin geliebt, coming to rest in a final rousing A Major chorus of affirmation.  At its end, a pleasure to make the acquaintance of this collection and to hear it treated with a bracing combination of brisk animation and sensibly-applied musicianship.

New space, new sound


La Compania

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Saturday March 19

La Compania (www.lacompania.com.au)
La Compania 

After a fair stretch of time working out of the Recital Centre’s Salon, this expert period music ensemble has moved its performance venue across Swanston Street Bridge to the Deakin Edge.   One immediate advantage is that patrons now have unimpeded visual access to the group’s performance: they’re all exposed, head to toe.  And, thanks to the space’s natural light, you can see the labour involved in the players’ work.  Another incidental benefit is that the need for two sittings of the same program on the same day has disappeared and, by yesterday’s showing, La Compania has largely retained its audience.

A disadvantage comes in the Edge’s acoustic properties.  While they can flatter a chamber orchestra, a small set of players like La Compania’s septet can become imbalanced, given the large air space.  Worth investigating is the solution put into practice by Kathryn Selby which is a back screen of panels that bounces sound out into the audience; this reflection works very well for piano trio recitals and might do much to lift the audible profile of Victoria Watts on viola da gamba and Rosemary Hodgson’s vihuela and small guitar/chittarino, both of which tended to disappear in the sonic complex except when used percussively or when the wind components fell silent.

Opening the new season in a new room, Danny Lucin led his players and two singers in a program concentrated on Mateo Flecha the Elder, the early 16th century Aragonese composer attributed by some musicologists with the composition of that well-known Chistmas villancico, Riu riu.   But this program consisted entirely of the composer’s ensaladas – salads indeed, mixing languages and metres in a cleverly unified whole; to my mind, more like a mixed grill because of the emphatic if changing rhythms and the clear melodic definition, some stimulated taste-buds removed from lettuce leaves and cucumber.  Three of these involved singers, soprano Cristina Russo and tenor Timothy Reynolds: La negrina, La guerra and the substantial El fuego.   Interwoven came three instrumental transcriptions: La bomba and two brief extracts from another ensalada, El jubilate: O que bonita cancion and La girigonca.

Pretty much all of these, sung or played, have a religious basis: some connected to the birth of Christ, others like La guerra concerned with the inevitable triumph of the Son of David over Lucifer or the necessity to follow the strait and narrow path rather than succumbing to the tempting fires, depicted in El fuego (of course), that can seduce mankind into wrong-doing in this temporal realm.   All very laudable and, if you have to endure moral-enforcing strictures, they could hardly be more agreable than these buoyant and optimistic miscellanies, written for the Christmas-time delectation of Spanish aristocrats.

In this new operating ambience, Cristina Russo’s projection impressed more than the last time I heard her in the Salon.  From the confident opening to La negrina, her projection emerged clearly from a considerate instrumental backing, a fair match for Reynolds’ always-lucid tenor.  In fact, this ensalada offered the most obvious examples of internal variety, its parts glued together in a rapid-moving miscellany, while the later stages of La guerra held some cleverly constructed and just-long-enough onomatopoeic passages where the singers mimicked the sounds of battle.   In addition, both Russo’s and Reynolds’ articulation in these instantly perceptible right-or-wrong conditions remained finished and accurate and their diction impressed consistently, given the rapidity with which several stretches of the texts had to be pronounced.

Lucin’s cornetto is as supple as ever, never strident but sinking to a gentle piano when escorting the singers, even if some of his ornamentation work sounded over-rushed; too many notes, as Mozart’s emperor said.  When Brock Imison took up his bass dulcian, the instrument’s penetrating force gave the ensemble’s output an added weight, matching Mitchell Cross’s penetrating tenor dulcian while Glenn Bardwell’s sackbut presented a discreet line throughout the program.  In fact, the streamlined shape of the company, with Christine Baker’s percussion offering plenty of colour in her chameleonic supporting role, gave this celebratory music an attractive leanness that only came unstuck at the start of O que bonita cancion which began with a solo from Hodgson that sounded tentative, possibly because the notes fell awkwardly for the player’s left hand.   But it was a small blemish, forgotten when the other instrumentalists entered into this particularly enjoyable ensalada party.




Light on Schubert


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 30, 2015

Almost five months ago, baritone Florian Boesch accompanied by Malcolm Martineau performed the three Schubert song-cycles as a job lot for the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series: solid readings, eloquent in address, determinedly serious if not actually stern in their impact.  Such an interpretative approach is generally to be expected: two of the sets – Winterreise and Die Schone Mullerin – illustrate tragedies.  But both of these cycles offer combinations of light and dark, excesses of enthusiasm as well as of depression, and this alternation came over clearly in Monday night’s reading of the Mullerin sequence from tenor Michael Smallwood and pianist Eidit Golder.

Eidit Golder and Michael Smallwood (Image: www.smh.com.au)
Eidit Golder and Michael Smallwood (Image: http://www.smh.com.au)

One of the factors that made this recital so exceptional was Smallwood’s splendid diction; every word counted and came across with sterling precision.  Yes, it’s much easier to achieve this in the small confines of the Salon, as opposed to Boesch’s having to cope with the Murdoch Hall acoustic, but the young Australian sustained his precision of articulation from the strongly accented opening Das Wandern, to the last soft strophes of Des Baches Wiegenlied.  In between, the tenor’s operatic experience told in bracing accounts of Ungeduld, typified by a deft alternation between the nervous excitement of each verse’s first five lines and the proud assertiveness each time in the concluding Dein ist mein Herz proclamation, deludedly one-sided as it turns out to be.

While Smallwood maintained a fluent delivery in less taxing numbers like Morgengruss or the four-square patterns of Mein!, more complex structures demonstrated his facility of even output – the long phrases of Pause, the erratic intensity that permeates Die bose Farbe, the shifts in character between the various sections of Am Feierabend where the poet/singer’s fate is determined.  Dynamic gradations sparked interest in practically all of the cycle’s 20 components but just as noticeable was Smallwood’s use of his high register: at times stentorian and bold, at others mezza voce for the high-mark of a curved phrase, flautando verging on falsetto in restrained, tense moments of introspection (although what parts of this obsessive work fall outside that descriptor?).

Golder, the most considerate of accompanists, put hardly a finger wrong throughout the cycle’s length, diligently negotiating the wide-ranging elements that are exercised during the work’s progress; to my ears, the most notable being those amiable but difficult-to-phrase semiquaver flurries in Wohin?,  the circular pattern-work of Halt!, scads of gruff low-lying triplets during Die bose Farbe, and the eventually mobile but disturbingly insistent upper pedal notes of the work’s last lied.

With her instrument open on the short stick, Golder offered a chameleonic support for her singer, not fearing to take an aggressive note when the attack directive called for it, happy to take geschwind on face value for Der Jager and  Eifersucht und Stolz and observe its various modulations for other lyrics.  But the most impressive characteristic of her work was not its beneficence but her awareness of the singer’s needs. It was rare to hear a hint of rhythmic dislocation, although it would be difficult to achieve any discrepancy in something like Der Jager which these executants took at breakneck speed.

In sum, here was a light-filled version of Schubert’s compendium which sustains its underpinning of despairing innocence to the end.  While many collaborators in Die schone Mullerin can offer impressive moments, only informed intelligences like Smallwood and Golder can take you without a mis-step along the traveller’s journey, outlining with clarity and dedication each step along its slow downward gradient; an impressive partnership that contrived to make this major work both technically clean and interesting.