Full-frontal Mahler at St.Andrew’s

MAHLER – Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)

Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano) / Roger Wilson (baritone)

Terence Dennis (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts 2010

Friday 19th March

No composer is more identified with song as integral to his output than Gustav Mahler. The creator of a number of vast symphonic edifices, he worked into most of these compositions either direct quotations from his own songs or melodies derived from them. His Eighth Symphony is, in essence a choral symphony, and his orchestral song-cycle Das Lied Von Der Erde he regarded as a symphony in all but name.

Mahler grew up in the garrison town of Jihlava, in Moravia, a region steeped in folksong, and a place which would have frequently rung with the sounds of military marches, the boy’s enthusiasm for these tunes probably accounting for the prominence of such melodies and forms in his instrumental works up to the Eighth Symphony. His forty or so songs include no less than twenty-one settings of verses from a German folk-collection of verses entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology which first appeared in 1805, with two further volumes following. These poems, collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Bretano, include a colourful variety of themes, topics and characters, both religious and secular, all displaying an engagingly simple but deeply direct set of fireside-wisdoms.

Mahler first set some of these verses in 1883 for a collection entitled Lieder und Gesange; but better-known are the twelve settings which make up the composer’s “Wunderhornlieder”, and which we know indeed as Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The use of orchestral accompaniment brought out Mahler’s skill at fashioning chamber-like instrumental sonorities, often using single lines or small groups for colouristic effect, though the expediences of publication and performance saw Mahler write piano versions of the accompaniment as well.

To have the whole set performed live would be, I think, a rare treat anywhere; and singers Linden Loader and Roger Wilson along with pianist Terence Dennis threw themselves into the humour, tragedy, irony, drollery, foolishness and romance of the different settings with plenty of feeling and gusto. The theatricality of some of the duets brought out a ready response from Roger Wilson, putting his extensive operatic experience and vocal acting skills to good use with some vivid characterisations. If somewhat less outwardly demonstrative and spectacular in her character portrayals, Linden Loader’s beautiful voice made the perfect foil for her partner in their duets, such as in the opening Der Schildwache Nachtlied, a dialogue between a soldier and a beautiful ghostly temptress. And she nicely caught the cocquettishness of the girl in Trost im Unglück, a song abut a hussar and his recalcitrant sweetheart, one in which the singers played the contrasts off each other deliciously. For me, the “plum” of the duets is Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a song whose music is filled with eerily-charged beauty and deep regret, depicting an encounter between a girl and her dead lover – both singers here characterising their parts with the utmost feeling, and Terence Dennis’s piano-playing getting everything right, from the ghostly trumpet calls near the beginning to the flashes of anguish transfixing the girl’s vocal line, and the beautiful transitions between the warmly romantic music in 3/4 time and the spectral reveille-calls of wind and brass. Elsewhere, perhaps Roger Wilson’s extremely boorish lad in Verlor’ne Müh might have been thought by some too dunderheaded to be a credible object of a young girl’s attention; but I enjoyed it immensely.

The individual songs were no less finely done by each singer. Again, Roger Wilson pointed the words of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt with obvious enjoyment, relishing the irony of the fishes’ pragmatic response to St Anthony’s sermonisings, and later, turning his gift for comic irony towards creatures of a different kind in Lob des hohen Verstandes, bringing off the brayings of a donkey most beautifully. He was suppported to the utmost by Terence Dennis, whose playing nicely underpinned the garrulousness of the saint’s preachings (a fiendishly difficult “perpetuum mobile” piano-part), as well as pointing all the fun and pomposity of the animals’ pronouncements in the latter song. And Linden Loader caught our sympathies all too heart-rendingly on behalf of both mother and child, in the tragic Das Irdische Leben, but then in due course restored equanimities with a charming, nicely-related Rheinlegendchen, the music lovely, lilting and lyrical (the performance surviving the all-too-audible and out-of-rhythm tappings of a nearby workman!).

Performing Revelge, the longest song of the set last of all in the concert naturally threw weight onto the darker, more serious side of the collection – the piece describes a post-battle parade of ghost-soldiers, with music that’s mostly funeral-march in character, but filled with sardonic, mock-heroic gestures as well as grim finalities. I thought Roger Wilson and Terence Dennis gave the piece such vivid, in-your-face treatment that anything that followed afterwards would have seemed impossibly pale and wan. The singer’s repeated cries of “Tra-la-li” at regular intervals seemed, if anything, to increase in energy and desperation as the song marched grimly onwards, with the piano-playing at times practically orchestral in its amplitude and colour, resolutely supporting the singer to the bitter end. For some tastes, perhaps, a little TOO over-the-top – but not for mine! Any music written by a man who, upon visiting Niagara Falls, exclaimed “At last – fortissimo!” cries out for the kind of full-blooded performances which we certainly got during this splendid concert.

‘If London were like Venice’ – songs to end the St Andrew’s series

Michael Gray (tenor) and Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Arias by Vivaldi and Tosti
Benjamin Britten: Song Cycle ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday, 19 March, 6.30pm

This concert brought to an end the innovative and interesting series of concerts of the St. Andrew’s season, timed to coincide with the International Arts Festival in Wellington.  Richard Greager and Marjan van Waardenberg, and St. Andrew’s Church, are to be congratulated on their enterprise and effort in bringing music-lovers a range of unusual repertoire and outstanding performers, notably singers and chamber musicians.

Unfortunately attendances, particularly at the early evening concerts (as compared with the lunchtime performances) were not large.  However, this concert bucked the trend; there was a well-filled church to hear the young tenor.

Michael Gray produced an excellent programme for his recital: the first page boasted a coloured picture of the Grand Canal, Venice, complete with gondolas, superimposed with buildings on London’s Trafalgar Square.  Good programme notes were followed by translations of all the songs.  Gray gave a spoken introduction to each group of songs.

Bruce Greenfield, described aptly in the brochure for the series as ‘doyen of Wellington accompanists’, was sympathetic and supportive, and as so often, managed at times to suggest a full orchestra.

The recital’s programme represented the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with seldom-heard works.

The first of the Vivaldi arias, ‘Dovea svenarti allora’ from Catone in Utica, was Vivaldi at his most dramatic.  Gray had variety of tone and a good sense of style for this music, but his high note at the end was more of a shriek.

Mostly, his tone was natural and unforced, while his Italian language, benefiting from five weeks in Italy last year, came over easily and clearly.

Britten’s cycle using John Donne’s wonderful sonnets was a very different animal from the Winter Words cycle by the same composer, sung by James Rodgers.

The declamatory nature of many of the musical settings became even aggressive and powerful in the second song ‘Batter my heart’.  This is difficult music to learn and to perform, and the accompaniment, virtuosic at times, does not help the singer a lot.

Gray’s voice is very different from that of Peter Pears, but he carried it off well, and conveyed the sense of the words thoughtfully. A beautiful pianissimo closed the third song ‘O! Might those sighs and tears…’.  In moments of word painting, such as ‘when I shake with feare’ in ‘Oh, to vex me…’, and ‘Christ crucified’ in ‘What if this present…’, the singer made the most of the opportunities presented.

Nevertheless, for me Donne’s words are better read as poetry.  Their sheer complexity defies musical setting.  Their music is in the words; musical setting does not enhance the words greatly, despite the competency of one as skilled as Benjamin Britten.

The dynamic range and nuance that can be brought into play by a skilled reader, is greater than that to be found in singing with piano accompaniment.  Yet this was a powerful performance of this setting of Donne’s superb words, and a tour de force for both performers.  Here again, Gray’s words were presented with clarity.

One of the Tosti songs (La Serenata) was also sung by James Rodgers, in his recital at the Adam Concert Room on Sunday evening.  Having seldom heard the composer’s songs, which were fashionable pre-World War II, I was surprised to hear them twice in a few days.  Nor were they as sentimental as I imagined.  Only for these songs did Michael Gray use the printed music.

If he hasn’t quite the smooth silky voice of the Italian tenor one imagines singing these songs, nevertheless he is a very fine, accomplished and intelligent singer.  For these songs he did produce a more Italianate tone, caressing the words appropriately. Again, there was some fine pianissimo singing.

Gray’s superb performance as Jupiter in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele last year, coupled with this excellent recital bode well for his future career.