“From Garden To Grave” – Margaret Medlyn and Bruce Greenfield

FROM GARDEN TO GRAVE – A Benefit Recital

Jack C. Richards Music Scholarship for Overseas PostGraduate Study

Margaret Medlyn (soprano)

Bruce Greenfield (piano)

STEPHAN PROCK – Song Cycle “Cages for the Wind” (poems by Alastair Campbell)

JENNY McLEOD – Song Cycle “From Garden To Grave” (poems by Janet Frame)


Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Sunday 11th July 2010

It’s said that piano recitals and song recitals don’t draw the crowds sufficiently for them to be financially viable undertakings on a regular basis – just why this is, when some of the world’s greatest music has been written for each of these genres by nearly all of the great composers taxes my understanding somewhat. The perception seems to be that with chamber music there are a number of performers in view whose interaction provides plenty of interest and variety, whereas both piano- and song-recitals are too static, too insufficiently varied to sustain an audience’s attention. It’s an attitude that’s part of a general present-age malaise involving people’s priorities, an idea that the purely “listening” experience is no longer good enough for concert-goers. These days the eye must be entertained as well as the ear – the concept of having an “inner vision” generated by musical sounds and fed by one’s imagination has been devalued in favour of and overlaid by a pre-requisite surface gloss.

In a recent issue of the once-esteemed “Gramophone” magazine, I was disturbed to read a statement by a critic which asked (not altogether rhetorically) why anybody would bother with audio-only listening to opera when one had any number of DVDs available to view as well as hear the same repertoire. Well I have tried production after opera production on DVD, and can safely say that a good two-thirds of them that I’ve encountered irritate me so much with spurious, ill-conceived “visual conceptualisings”, that I often find myself reaching gratefully for my audio-only CDs and LPs, so I can listen to the music undistracted. But I digress somewhat from the real point of this review, which is to proclaim, to anybody who wants to listen, or read, or whatever, that song recitals (and piano recitals, for that matter) can work brilliantly and engage the listener’s sensibilities most satisfyingly when delivered with the energy, panache and heartfelt feeling that soprano Margaret Medlyn and pianist Bruce Greenfield gave to their recent “From Garden to Grave” presentation at Victoria University’s Hunter Concert Chamber.

Margaret Medlyn is, in fact, a concert-goer’s dream of a performer – her total identification with anything she chooses to perform makes the experience for the listener one of being taken profoundly by her into the world of whatever work she’s presenting. Unlike some charismatic performers, who invest whatever music they make with their own personalities to the extent that the composer’s vision is somewhat obscured or diverted, Medlyn gives herself entirely to whatever role she’s playing. The three operatic roles I’ve seen her undertake in recent times have all involved this process of abandonment of self and complete subsumption into these roles – Kundry in Parsifal, Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle and Kostelnicka in Janacek’s Jenufa. On the recital platform, she’s perhaps a bit alarming for people who might be expecting a degree or so more circumspection in non-operatic music. But one gets the feeling (as I did throughout this present recital) of having been transported as a listener to the pulsating heart of every piece of music she performs – and together with the excellent Bruce Greenfield on the piano, Medlyn engaged us totally throughout what was an emotionally heartfelt programme, from the overt romanticism of the Rachmaninov and Korngold songs to the full-blooded angularities of Jenny McLeod’s realisations of Janet Frame’s poems.

Right from the opening of the first Rachmaninov song O Stay My Love singer and pianist demonstrated their “engaged on all points” connection with the music, making  surgings within the work’s greater crescendo, their control of ebb and flow very much an art that concealed art. In the Silent Night, though more lyrical, still featured an intense climax – the composer’s often-declared practice of constructing a “point” within a work very much in evidence here – and how persuasively the singer encompassed both forthright and hushed concluding intensities in what seemed like a single span! Lilacs was exquisitely done by both musicians, restrained, but suggesting whole worlds of loveliness, contrasting sharply with the intense drama of the following Loneliness, the music over the four settings giving ample and compelling notice of Rachmaninov’s range of variation and expression as a song-writer.

One would have thought Alastair Campbell’s poetry eminently suited to musical settings, the poet’s feeling for lyricism and powerful imagery tempered by an innate sense of structure and rhythmic symmetry, which has the effect of the words being as much sung as read whenever the poetry is encountered. American-born composer Stephan Prock, currently working at the New Zealand School of Music as a senior lecturer in composition, was commissioned by Professor Jack C. Richards to write a cycle of settings of Campbell’s poetry for Margaret Medlyn to perform; so this was the work’s premiere performance. Stephan Prock himself wrote about the poetry’s singability in his programme notes, telling us that, upon reading, the words “began to suggest musical atmospheres and vocal lines infolding…like buds of roses unfurling their petals…” And I liked his open-hearted remark that followed: “When poems begin to sing themselves to me, I know I have found the right material”.

Prock took the last five poems from a collection called Cages in the Wind and set them as a cycle. The first, Words and Roses brought out a full-textured response at the outset, the piano tumbling and the singer declaiming, the music’s soaring energies dissolving upwards to a point of quiet ecstasy, like an aftermath of lovemaking. By contrast, Warning to Children was theatrical and frightening, eminently suiting Medlyn’s voice and Greenfield’s virtuoso piano playing, the performers enjoying the piece’s off-beat rhythms and sudden changes of mood. The third setting Gift of Dreams presented a swirling, vertiginous fantasyscape, Medlyn passionate and abandoned as the sequence swirled onward towards what seemed like a distant realm of continuance. Then came another contrast, with Whitey, a piquant, atmospheric tribute to a blackbird who regularly visited the poet’s garden, the vocal line soaring and the piano beautifully emulating the ambient birdsong, the text becoming a meditation upon life’s passing as the singer voiced the line “And I murmur to his ghost”, before farewelling the visitor’s shade, to a concluding echo of the bird’s song. Finally, Roots plunged us back into monumentability, the piano’s agitations reminiscent of parts of Lilburn’s Elegy, before circumspection overtook the singer’s powerful utterances, and  gradually brought about an elegiac mood, the piano deeply and quietly resounding at the close. A beautiful work, the performance realising all of the force, whimsy and tender sentiment of the settings.

I wasn’t familiar with the Korngold songs that made up the next bracket on the programme – but from what I did know of the composer I would have expected the music to be steeped in the lushest of romantic idioms and tones; and so it proved. The opening Sterbelied (a setting of Christina Rosetti’s well-known When I am dead, my dearest ) required and got the kind of full-blooded emotional commitment from the singer that Margaret Medlyn’s so richly able to supply, and with Bruce Greenfield’s piano playing its part in supporting the voice via generously-filled resonances. Two songs from Korngold’s Op.22 followed, the first, Mit Dir zu schweigen setting a text by Karl Kobald, one which evokes a kind of “love’s fulfilment” wrought by a silence shared with the beloved, the music enabling singer and pianist to “‘float” their tones throughout drifting, exploratory harmonies which express the endlessness of oblivion. The second, Was Du mir bist, was a setting of verses by Eleonore van der Straten, describing an almost fairy-tale evocation of a world wrought by the power of love, the music imbued with rapture and largesse of joyous feeling – the voice radiant throughout, the accompanying piano tones by turns grand and celestial.

The prospect of Margaret Medlyn and Bruce Greenfield performing a Jenny McLeod song-cycle immediately brought to mind a similar composer/performers collaboration splendidly recorded some years ago by Kiwi-Pacific on a disc called Burning Bright, and which featured McLeod’s settings of a group of William Blake’s poems entitled Through the World, a work I’d very much like to hear again “live”. But this was something different, a later work (again commissioned by Jack Richards, and actually dedicated by the composer to the pianist, Bruce Greenfield) whose title, From Garden to Grave, gave the recital its name. The work sets eight of Janet Frame’s poems, taken from two collections, The Pocket Mirror and The Goose Bath; and the cycle’s title comes from the sixth poem Freesias. The titles of the individual poems are themselves a delight, the first, When the Sun shines More Years than Fear, a declamatory plea for a better world featuring a strong vocal line and a detailed, volatile piano part. The composer’s “brief turn on an old song” drolly describes the descending/ascending musical topography of I Must Go Down to the Seas Again, while the third A Visit to the Retired English Professor incorporates a “parlando-like” introduction consisting of the title, followed by a delightfully discursive record of an unhurried encounter.

What fun Margaret Medlyn had with At the Opera – lots of “tessitura” and a moment of gleeful audience confrontation, likening we hapless spectators to “tier on tier” of grim-looking listeners! A few strained cruelly high notes took nothing away from the performance’s panache and enjoyment. The title of the next piece was sung – My Mother Remembers Her Fellow-Pupils at School – and the names of various contemporaries were poignantly resurrected, with each utterance given a different weight or colour, the exchange nicely delivered by singer and pianist, including the whimsical forgetfulness at the end. Probably the most “weighted” was Freesias, partly sung, partly spoken, dramatic utterances that were heartfelt and wry by turns, the writer trying, it seemed, to keep the pain out of the poetry, at times capitulating with utterances  like “but I cannot keep my promise”, and bowing the head to the music’s tolling bells and funereal aspect. After these emotional stretches and strainings, Medlyn and Greenfield gave both Too Cold and The Chickadee a droll cheerfulness that seemed eminently suited to the composer’s “life goes on” impulses by way of both renewal and resignation. In all, I thought the cycle a work to be savoured and, hopefully, revisited.

Music that has triumphantly stood the test of time is Rachmaninov’s, despite certain dire predictions of eventual extinction in some quarters half-a-century ago; and thanks to advocacy such as that of the late Elisabeth Söderström’s on record, the songs are coming into their own as magnificent late-romantic outpourings of intense feeling and sensibility, works wonderfully and exquisitely crafted. Often they require interpretative responses of an order that threaten to break the confines of their physical performance parameters, as Medlyn and Greenfield demonstrated with the unashamed operatic presentation given the magnificent Spring Waters, the singer’s highest notes not ideally pure and easeful, but somehow conveying in the throes of effortful expression an extra dimension to the music’s essence. As for the piano writing, Medlyn’s unashamed acknowledgement of her pianist’s positively orchestral playing even before the song’s end brought the house down on behalf of both musicians!

Not as paganistic, but just as heartfelt in a more devotional sense, was the pair’s performance of Prayer, a breath-catching evocation of a penitent’s torment through guilt, the major/minor oscillations at the song’s end symbolising the conflicting states of emotion. A happier mood was suggested with Before My Window, the music’s unashamed lyricism almost pure “Dr Zhivago” in form and feeling, voice and piano weaving beautiful double-stranded arabesques in rapture at the beauty and intoxicating scent of the cherry blossom. Finally, the heady emotion of Midsummer Nights brought forth tones of the most passionate order from both musicians, feelings burgeoning at “graceful realms of happiness”, and rising like a sea-swell yet again in a paean of praise for the moonlight of midsummer and its resplendent beauties.

This recital was held as a benefit for the Jack C Richards Music Scholarship Award for postgraduate students enrolled full-time at the NZSM, who wish to undertake overseas study. Besides supporting an extremely worthy cause, the concert served to underline what we concertgoers miss by having so few opportunities to enjoy song recitals given by our top singers. Margaret Medlyn and Bruce Greenfield certainly gave us such a one, a musical experience well worth savouring.

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