Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Keith Lewis in Festival song recital with Michael Houstoun

By , 07/03/2010

Songs by Purcell, Jenny McLeod, Britten and Barber

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 7 March 2010, 7.30pm  

This weekend two New Zealand tenors were the stars, at least in the singing department. Yet there could hardly be two tenors inhabiting more different terrain. Simon O’Neill has staked out Wagner as his territory and has already made an international impact there.

Keith Lewis would seem as foreign to Wagner as O’Neill would (at this stage at least) to Dowland, Purcell or Handel. He has certainly sung opera, though it has not included many of the top twenty. He has built a considerable reputation in Mozart which he has sung in many opera houses, including Berlin, Paris, Chicago, Rome, Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, San Francisco, Zurich, Madrid, Hamburg, Monte Carlo, La Fenice in Venice… and other 17th and 18th century opera: The Coronation of Poppea, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Armide, Handel’s Semele, one or two bel canto pieces like The Barber of Seville, Maria Stuarda and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. More modern operas include Salome, The Makropulos Case, Die tote Stadt and Lulu, The range of his repertoire also includes Berlioz’s Requiem, his Te Deum, La damnation de Faust, and Lélio (the sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique), and a variety of choral works.

Sorry about the quasi CV….

But his other strength is in the song repertoire and this festival concert offered impressive evidence of his accomplishment in a challenging and artistically interesting range. Conspicuously absent were any German lieder, operatic arias, French mélodies (apart from his encore), or the enormous range of Italian classical songs, folk songs, Grieg, Tchaikovsky or Granados, the English Renaissance era, and so on.

So this recital began with a fascinating group of Purcell songs, three of them with piano realisations by Britten. The piano parts were indeed striking, though they had the effect of altering the flavour of Purcell quite markedly. The famous Frost scene (‘What power art thou’) from the semi-opera, King Arthur, was not one of those, though obviously arranged for keyboard from the original score.

They were arresting, a revelation in the sense of making them something else; in Britten’s not-so-subtle colourings, they suggested a variety of other composers. The latter-day harmonies surrounding the steady tread of ‘So when the glittering Queen of Night’ hinted at Brahms or Reger, never mind the unlikely falsetto singing that Lewis slipped in and out of. But then the descending three-note motif made clear the affinity with Marais’s Sonnerie de SainteGeneviève du MontdeParis (presumably borrowed by Marais whose piece was written in the 1720s, but perhaps that idea was simply in the air at that time). The magnificent music of ‘Not all my torments’, also from the collection Orpheus Brittanicus, tested Lewis’s command of baroque ornamentation, for the decorative effects were endless and difficult and I found some of his sounds less than ideal.

The Frost scene from King Arthur is a remarkable, original episode (the work was memorably done by Victoria University about a decade ago), and Houstoun ‘s striking piano part, tip-toeing through the accompaniment to Lewis’s impressive rendering of this vivid operatic landscape. The last Purcell song, ‘Evening Hymn’, which came from the other Purcell collection, Harmonia Sacra, created another very different atmosphere: calm, melodic, with a few discreet ornaments, ending with a livelier Alleluia.

The centre piece of the recital was Keith Lewis’s commission of a song cycle from Jenny McLeod of Janet Frame poems. (Upbeat on Radio NZ Concert last week did interviews with both composer and singer). Most were selected by McLeod herself; they were not easy, either to sing or to hear, but it took little to recognize real music which I thought might start to take root in the mind with further hearings. There’s always a question, in making such a comment, whether it suggests failure as second performances are scarcer than first ones.

Though he must have approved of the settings, there were signs of difficulty and strain in some of them: the piano part too was highly demanding, not any easier as a result of the considerable independence of voice from accompaniment. I derived great enjoyment however, from concentrating from time to time on the piano part.

The most curious, and moving perhaps was Lament for the Lakes, the verse in the tradition of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, nonsense words set among real words that lent a particular transcendental power to the fiercely felt grief at environmental desecration – not of course confined to the battle over Lake Manapouri, with New Zealand ever more destructively in futile pursuit of Australia? Lewis was not flawless towards the end of this song.

McLeod draws special attention to Song No 4, ‘Promise’, dealing with ‘the most heinous aspects of United States foreign policy in the 50 years prior to the Obama administration’. The text, and its setting, again derive their force from the suggestiveness and ambiguities that this kind of poetry and this music, succeeds in expressing. It is a stirring example of the ability of poetry, music and the arts generally to engage with the great political issues of the day which has always been an important role for the arts.

The poems tilled all manner of soils however, some witty in either a Brittenish or Waltonesque manner, some suggesting serial methods. The vocal parts might have taxed Lewis in the learning; the piano parts too were highly individual, mostly fast, complex, but ear-catching in the sense of enticing further exploration; some I spoke to felt they were too remote from the words, but I felt that, while calling for far more notes than the voice part, the accompaniments, so wonderfully played, adorned and supported the songs.

There followed groups of songs by Britten and Barber. The Britten songs, to Auden poems, are classic examples of the oneness of poet and composer, and while difficult enough, are very much at the heart of Lewis’s art and sit well with his voice.

The first, ‘Let the florid music praise’ has kinship with the Nocturne from Britten’s Serenade, and each of them expresses such individual emotion though it is hard to define.

Barber’s songs are simply beautiful though I felt that in the first one, W H Davies Love’s Caution, the music attempted to follow individual words and phrases too closely, not a problem later when for example in Joyce’s ‘Of that so sweet imprisonment’ captured the overall spirit most sensitively. Yeats’ The Secrets of the old again seemed, with its animated, conversational tone, to be a real song. The last song, The Praises of God, derived from an 11th century poem, was lit equally by voice and piano, the latter bright, lightly athletic in its support.

As an encore Lewis departed from the English language for the first time (unless you regard the Janet Frame’s Lament for the Lakes as a foreign language). Reynaldo Hahn’s À Chloris, his most famous song which sounds as if it’s straight out of a Lully opera. I think there may have been many in the audience who’d have liked a little more of such music, for it was most seductive.

Why does the Festival use such lightly-inked type in their programmes? In the desirable and attractive dim lighting of the hall, the notes were impossible to read (though the words of the songs, on separate Xeroxed pages, were fine), even after I reached for a stronger pair of glasses.

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