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Delightful Takiri Vocal Ensemble heralds a new era for the song recital?

By , 30/08/2015

Takiri Ensemble
Anna Leese (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Glover (tenor), Robert Tucker (baritone)
Kirsten Simpson (piano)

Songs and ensembles by Schubert, Schumann, David Hamilton, Ross Harris, Anthony Ritchie, Britten and Vaughan Williams

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 30 August 2:30 pm

The Takiri Ensemble is a novelty for New Zealand: a vocal quartet that aims to be a permanent presence in this country. It challenges the long-held and flimsily sustained belief that there’s no audience for the song recital; another similar, ill-supported notion is that there’s little appetite for piano recitals. Each prejudice has probably been based on cases that have not been representative or well-conceived, flawed through poor programming, or uninteresting-looking performers.

I should, however, note another straw in the wind: an enterprising song recital inspired by pianist Catherine Norton on 10 June (see the review at that date).

This example looks like winning through the presence of at least the two well-known female singers, and a programme that has a decent proportion of genuinely popular, well-known material. Soprano Anna Leese has become one of the best-known young singers to have established an international reputation; Bianca Andrew, now at the Guildhall in London, has attracted a big following in New Zealand through her vivid persona. Andrew Glover has not been so visible in New Zealand since going to study overseas where he has had substantial professional engagements: Opera North, Garsington Opera, Opera Holland Park and English Touring Opera. Robert Tucker studied with Andrew at the Opera Centre in Perth, and has been singing professionally overseas for some years, including Schaunard in La bohème and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte (which he sang recently, alongside Bianca as Dorabella, with Wanderlust Opera in Wellington).

Pianist Kirsten Simpson is an artist-teacher in accompaniment at the school of music, Victoria University. During her extensive time overseas she has accompanied at the Solti Te Kanawa Accademia di Bel Canto in Italy.

The programme began with what I imagine is still the best known of Lieder: Schubert. All very familiar to me from my teens, though how familiar they are to today’s teenagers, I wonder. I was lucky to have had two music-loving German masters at college who used Lieder, mainly Schubert (also my first hearing of Schumann’s ‘Die Grenadiere’), and German folk-songs to embed the language, and at university, the wonderful Oxford Book of German Verse, very much my Bible, was annotated with details of musical settings.

So it will be obvious that the quartet did not confine itself to music composed or arranged for all four singers; in fact, all of the Schubert songs were sung in turn by individual singers. Because these are generally more familiar, I suspect that the ensemble will be wise to include a reasonable number of such well-loved songs as ‘loss-leaders’ for the more meaty or less easily digested music.

The second group of songs was totally unfamiliar to me: Schumann’s late cycle entitled Spanische
Liebeslieder
(Op 138) might have been composed specifically for this ensemble. The piano alone plays a Prelude at the beginning and an Intermezzo in the middle, signalling the significance of the piano as scene or mood painter; it was always rewarding to listen to Kirsten Simpson’s thoughtful and colourful support for the voices.

Each of the eight songs is set for one or two voices and the last, ‘Dunkler Lichtglanz’, for the quartet, and the performances follow the pattern of voices adopted in the famous Graham Johnson Complete Schumann songs, on Hyperion for the bi-centenary in 2010.

Anna sang the first song, Schubert’s ‘Die Forelle’; it was a wonderful exhibition of her fluidity, her easy command of varied articulations and colours and the fisherman theme reappeared with ‘Fischerwiese’, marked with a joyous quality over sparkling accompaniment.

Robert Tucker used dynamic subtleties, especially a hardly audible pianissimo, in ‘An Sylvia’ which used to be popular as sung to Shakespeare’s original lyric from Two Gentlemen from Verona. Then there was firm metal in the voice, and in his later ‘Schwanengesang’ (not the song cycle), pregnant silences, depicting the approach of death.

Andrew Glover’s first song was the heart-felt ‘An die Musik’, with a caressing tone and an almost religious pianissimo, supported by discreet face and hand gestures. Then in ‘Nacht und Träume’, he held long high head notes, beautiful breath control. But in the Schumann cycle, in ‘O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen’ there was a little tightness in his high register.

Bianca Andrew took over, with the powerfully emotional ‘Die junge Nonne’, which she sang with impressively rich imagination; she knows how to use her head and arms to illuminate the music and dramatise the sense of the words.

Though not all the Schumann songs are equal in melodic charm and emotional integrity, this cycle, Spanische Liebeslieder, deserves outings as a whole. Though the notes naturally drew attention to Spanish character, there was little to my ears; both verses and music sounded thoroughly absorbed into a German sensibility. So they stood in the mainstream of the Lied. The two women sang the duet ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ with special delight, their voices and intent in harmony.

The men too had their duet, ‘Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen’, and their voices showed a delightful unanimity of style and sense.

After the interval came a few New Zealand songs: David Hamilton’s arrangements for these singers of his choral pieces, Three Anzac Settings.  Utterly unpretentious little works, quite different one from the other, handling sharply contrasting aspects of the war, including one, ‘Before Battle’, which dealt with the experience of conscientious objectors, in an idiom refreshingly free of any striving for ugliness or horror. There was a childlike tone in its rhythms, beautifully caught by singers and pianist, very remote from the sanctimonious character found in much music that deals with the tragedy of war.

The third, ‘In Flanders Fields’, was more subdued, in which men’s voices predominated.

Ross Harris composed three songs for Wellington soprano Lesley Graham in appreciation of her role in Harris’s two operas of the 1980s, Waituhi and Tanz der Schwäne. Bianca sang these charming vignettes set to poems by Bub Bridger; short little stories, gently declamatory; ‘Gossip’ had the air of wistful memories.

Two songs by Anthony Ritchie: the more I hear of his music, the more I feel it reflects clearly the happy return to compositional sanity, honesty and musical communicability after the perversities of the late 20th century. ‘He Moemoea’ is a polished, mature little song; ‘Ataturk Memorial’, to me, was somewhat unconvincing, a little prosaic, yet it seemed to work as a song.

Andrew Glover sang two songs by Britten: ‘Let the Florid Music Praise’ and ‘Oliver Cromwell’, the first with an uncanny hint of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the second a witty little piece, quite
splendidly done.  Anna Leese sang Britten’s ‘O Waly Waly’, with an arresting edginess and clarity.

Three Vaughan Williams songs brought the programme to an end. Anna and Bianca joined in singing ‘It was a Lover and His Lass’, weaving among the notes joyfully; the two men in ‘Fear no more the Heat of the Sun’, produced tones of touching solemnity, calm, elegiac; and the quartet sang ‘Linden Lea’, a cappella, perfectly fitting.

The quartet had sung already in Kaitaia, Wanaka and Motueka; they go on to Whanganui, Rotorua and Whakatane, but sing nowhere else in Wellington – What A Shame!

Do the other concert promoters still fear that singers will keep their audiences at home? This concert, with its audience of over 300, should persuade them otherwise.

P.S.
My colleague Rosemary Collier, who was also at the concert, has just commented about the excellent diction, which is so important in the singing of Lieder and other ‘art song’ – that they are ‘a marriage of poetry and music’.  (10am, Tuesday 1 September). I totally agree with her.

 

 

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