Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Warmth amid the cold – Song Recital at Old St.Paul’s

By , 08/06/2010

Music by A.Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Marcello, Durante, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc and Copland

Janey MacKenzie (soprano)

Robin Jaquiery (piano)

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday 8th June 2010

Despite the rain and cold doing its best to dampen people’s concert-going inclinations, soprano Janey MacKenzie got a heartening and enthusiastic attendance of determined music-lovers at her lunchtime recital with pianist Robyn Jaquiery at Old St.Paul’s Church.

The performers very quickly made up for the inclement weather through their communicative warmth and whole-hearted enjoyment of what they were presenting for their audience’s grateful pleasure, an interchange evident from the response to the very first item, one of four early Italian songs by various composers. Janey MacKenzie had instantly disarmed our reserve at the beginning by brandishing what she called “the dreaded book” of Italian art-songs, a volume which she contended every vocal coach had worked their students mercilessly through for good or for ill. Whatever associated traumas were suggested by her reference to the tome were nicely dispelled by her performances of the songs, all sung in attractively-nuanced Italian. To begin with, we were given an evocation of an exotic land by Alessandro Scarlatti, “Già il sole dal Gange” (The sun above the Ganges), filled with delight and wonderment of the scene’s romance and colour, followed by a love-song “Se tu m’ami, se sospiri” (If you love me, if you sigh) by Pergolesi, one in which the singer used the occasionally florid passagework to great expressive effect, elsewhere catching the song’s melancholy.  Doubt exists regarding whether Benedetto Marcello actually wrote “Il mio bel foco” (My joyful ardour), but the song is a great one, tricky to negotiate, with plenty of judicious breath-control needed. Both singer and pianist realised the work’s “minor-key” feeling with impressive poise, and gave us finely-controlled upward surges of feeling at the song’s climactic points. Durante’s “Danza, danza, fanciulla gentile” (Dance gentle girl) scampered this way and that in an attractively elfin manner, the musicians working hard to compensate for the church’s rather unresonant acoustic, a true, but dry-ish sound.

The three Vaughan Williams songs which followed included “Linden Lea”, whose melody, although the composer’s own, is probably his most well-known tribute to English folk-song after his orchestral setting of “Greensleeves”. Described as a “Dorset song” by the composer, the setting is of verses by William Barnes, from a collection “Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset dialect”. Janey MacKenzie’s singing gave a “fresh-as-paint” feeling to the work from the outset, though I felt the words of the second verse needed a touch more “point”. The singer’s focus was resharpened with the third verse’s declamatory, almost operatic utterances, melting touchingly into a final remembrance of the low-leaning apple tree at the end – a nice performance. The second song “Silent Noon” brought out long, strong lines, singer and pianist filling out their tones nicely, and the ensuing flowing movement transporting us briefly to realms of rapt enchantment, before pitilessly moving things on once again. And I thought the beautiful backward-looking high note from the singer near the end at the word “song” very affecting. Gorgeously gurgly piano-playing from Robyn Jaquiery set “The Water Mill” on its way, the singer having to negotiate some treacherous rhythmic eddyings and sudden becalmings in the vocal line throughout, perhaps needing, I thought, to give a little bit more juice to the lyrical episodes in places for more of a”storytelling” effect. Otherwise singer and pianist deftly captured much of the subservience of the lives of the miller and his family to the “time-turning” motions of the water-mill, the song’s chief protagonist.

As a prelude to the Poulenc song-cycle “La courte paille” (The short straw), Janey MacKenzie entertained us briefly with an account of the student experiences in Paris of her sometimes vocal-coach Donald Munro, who would turn pages for the composer Francis Poulenc at the piano accompanying Munro’s teacher, baritone Pierre Bernac. The Poulenc cycle is a setting of children’s nonsense poems by Maurice Carême, the music entirely characteristic of this belovedly characterful composer, and vividly brought to life by both musicians. From the opening “Le sommeil” (The Sleep), with its languid sweetness, through the mischievous “Quelle aventure!” (What an adventure!), whose antics brought laughter to our lips, the salon-like “La reine de coeur” (The Queen of Hearts), and the nervy energies of “Ba, Be, Bi, Bo, Bu”, both singer and pianist brought a wealth of characterisations to life, leading our pleasurable expectations ever onward to the next vignette. The musical distillations of the angel musicians seemed straightforward compared to the occasional chromatic venturings of both “Le cafaron” (The baby carafe), and “Lune d’Avril” (April Moon), the latter’s declamatory homage to the moon fearlessly brought off by the singer, and nicely rounded by a beautiful piano postlude.

For a lunchtime concert, the fare was richly satisfying, concluding with some of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs”. Beginning with the Shaker song “Simple Gifts”,  Janey MacKenzie nicely differentiated between the slightly held-back first stanza, and the richly-wrought progression towards the certainty of attaining “true simplicity”. After a less-than-certain start, “The Little Horses” got into its stride, both musicians enjoying the “riding into the dark” episodes, and back to the reprise of the lullaby with nary a further mishap. The good humour of “Ching-a-ring Chaw” and the hymn-like American dream-time “At the River” made a good contrast, the restraint of the latter a perfect foil for the final item, a children’s nonsense song “I Bought Me a Cat”, the singer’s deliciously-characterised animal voices capped off by her newly-purchased man’s honeyed tones at the beginning of the final verse – though, of course, the cat still gets the last word!

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