Love, loud and clear

SONGS TO A DISTANT BELOVED

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.

A Musical Portrait

Ludovico’s Band

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 17, 2015

                                                                                    Ludovico’s Band 

In this final 2015 recital given by a consort notable for the high calibre of its members, the five contributing composers were producing work during England’s Caroline Era, the reign of Charles I which tore the country apart and, in the process, put much of its cultural heritage in peril; not just music, although we tend to slide past these particular decades between the brilliant ferment of Tudor composition and the brief-lived glory of British music that is Henry Purcell.  For this occasion, Ludovico’s Band comprised six instrumentalists, including the extra triple harp of Hannah Lane to partner co-director Marshall McGuire’s instrument, with guest mezzo Sally Anne Russell singing works by Nicholas Lanier and Shakespeare’s known collaborator, Robert Johnson.

The timbre melange for this brief recital, which included purely instrumental music by William Lawes, John  Jenkins and some scraps from John Playford’s Dancing Master compendium, gave top-line honours to Julia Fredersdorff‘s violin, with a fellow-string in Ruth Wilkinson’s gamba occupying a supple support role except for a D minor trio sonata by Jenkins where the pair shared the work-load with occasional harp interludes.  But for the most part, plucked instruments dominated, the harps partnered by Tommie Andersson’s alternation between theorbo and lute, Samantha Cohen also employing her theorbo but working through a good part of the night on her guitar.

The result, when all were engaged simultaneously as in the opening D minor Harp Consort by Lawes, No. 4 in the set of the eleven, made a rich tapestry, a generous buzzing brought about by an inevitable arpeggiation when harps and theorbos each play more than one note.  This work’s opening Fantazy saw the melodic burden shared between Fresersdorff and McGuire, both preserving the music’s innate stateliness right through to a noticeably vigorous, if brief, sarabande.  A less generous amplitude came in the same composer’s Duet for lute and harp, Andersson and McGuire handling with seasoned aplomb the work’s three-dance chain, the whole lasting about 4 minutes, with little variety of dynamic inflexion.

Russell’s arrival onstage brought a novel strand to the mix, largely because this singer eschews the peculiar habit adopted by some singers of works a century either side of this period; to wit, aiming for a near-genderless purity with minimal vibrato, an avoidance of dramatic possibilities and a concentration on purity of line – no swooping, no audible breaths, no distinct plosives.   Russell took her four Lanier songs as scenes, the settings of Thomas Carew’s No more shall meads and Mark how the blushful morn infused with a warm vigour of attack, reaching even more intense levels in Campion’s Fire, fire and the vivid bite of Neither sighs, nor tears, nor mourning.  The mezzo entered into each song’s emotional world and, while the effect could be over-pronounced in intensity, the works spoke clearly, each one taking the listener on a short trek as engrossing as a Schubert lied if more reminiscent of an extended recitative than a lilting folk-song.

Johnson’s setting of the Ben Jonson lyric Have you seen but a white lillie grow was the best-known piece on this program, Russell giving two verses and hence a chance to take in her security of pitch at the lyric’s climax and the flexibility of tessitura while her accompaniment was relatively thin with lute and theorbo.  Woods, rocks and mountains, possibly/probably by Shakespeare, also gained from a more direct voice, its Dowland-like downward falls and hopeless repetitions of one note speaking cogently of love’s despair in this interpretation, rather than communicating a well-bred, light soporific depression.

For O let us howl some heavy note, a rough-edged invitation from a madman in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Russell took relish in the chromatic rises that illustrate the character’s unbalanced state and found plenty of room for near-onomatopoeic imitations as the air moved from ‘beasts and fatal fowl’ to some not-too-quiescent swans greeting their own extinction with placidity.  Even in the benign context of a comfortable evening recital in Melbourne’s salon, this piece holds an uncomfortable force that Russell conveyed with a full-bodied and mobile style of execution.

Concluding with five of the Playford dances, the band again illustrated its elasticity, a wealth of bass strings resonantly rhythmic and, for a bonus, Ruth Wilkinson took up her recorder to cut through the string textures, focusing your attention on the the simple but infectious brio of the tunes on which these players built a rousing harmonic ambience, a window into (musically, at least) more simple and clearer-speaking times.