Heartfelt Russian Song from Joanna Heslop




Songs Inspired by Nature


Settings of Poetry by Pushkin




St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 13th October 2010

I heard the lark’s song from afar as I dashed towards St.Andrew’s Church and eased myself through the doors, just as the singer was coming to the end of what sounded like a tiny Slavic frisson of avian abandonment – so, thanks to my lateness I had all but missed the first item, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Sound of the Lark’s Singing. Which wouldn’t have been too much of a tragedy, were it not for the realisation which gradually overtook me that here at this somewhat humble lunchtime concert was something special and precious being enacted, a singer fully immersed in both sound and sense of what she was performing, and with sufficient vocal technique to bring out all the music’s beauty, emotion and excitement, working hand-in-glove with similarly-committed piano playing. Rather like with Margaret Medlyn’s and Bruce Greenfield’s July concert at Victoria University, soprano Joanna Heslop and pianist Richard Mapp triumphantly demonstrated the power of art-song to delight, to move and to thrill listeners who’ve been sadly unaccustomed of late to hearing such repertoire regularly performed by both local and visiting musicians.

As with piano recitals and their repertoire, neglect of song-recitals by promotors and organisations because of what might be thought of as a falling-away of interest is little short of tragic – it means that concertgoers will be deprived of hearing “live” some of the Western world’s greatest and most significant music. To take Rachmaninov as an example, people who know the often-played concertos but don’t get the chance to hear the songs, two of which were performed in this concert, can’t really claim to “know” the composer’s music in any great depth. Joanna Heslop’s performance of Lilacs, one of Rachmaninov’s most beautiful songs, gave her audience such rapt, breath-catching moments of heartfelt loveliness as to dispel for the moment all thoughts of glittering, gallery-pleasing piano concertos, and ask for more of what we had just heard. The following Daisies took us elsewhere, at a different, more profusely energetic and exuberant time of the day, the song’s melody able to soar, melt, burn and exult. Lilacs, by contrast, had inhabited more delicate, deeper-toned realms, the music’s emotion beautifully gradated towards the composer’s point of release, and with the same surety of touch dissolved into the silences at the end.

One had only to listen to the final song in the “Inspired by Nature” bracket, Tchaikovsky’s Why Do I Love You, Bright Night?, to make connections with Rachmaninov’s music, the two composers sharing a like melodic gift and “charged” emotional capacity, Joanna Heslop proving herself as a marvellous storyteller, with Richard Mapp strumming and arpeggiating his accompaniment in truly bardic fashion. Such lovely shaping of phrases! – with both musicians seeming instinctively to know how and when to build intensities and when to let them go. And though we were probably not an audience filled with fluent Russian speakers, the singer’s heartfelt articulations nevertheless allowed us to experience a powerful sense of the emotion conveyed by the texts throughout.

The settings of verses by Aleksandr Pushkin which followed had a similar communicative focus – simplest and most direct were the two songs by Cesar Cui, the second, I loved you and perhaps still do¬†beginning almost disarmingly before briefly “opening up” to great effect in the second verse, then returning to a quieter manner most effectively at the end. Rimsky-Korsakov figured again with On the Hills of Georgia, a fervent recollection of delight and nostalgia, the ambience wonderfully evoked by singer and pianist; while Balakirev’s rather more self-consciously operatic setting of the variously titled Do Not Sing Your Sad Georgian Songs (Rachmaninov’s setting of the same text is usually translated as O Never Sing to Me Again) continued the Georgian theme, Joanna Heslop fearlessly tackling the opening high notes, and skilfully encompassing the song’s contrasts between lyrical and powerful, impassioned episodes.

The third and final section of this all-too-brief recital presented Dmitri Shostakovich’s Satires, a setting of five poems by Alekzandr Glikberg (1880-1932) who wrote satirical verses under the name of Sasha Chorny, and whose writings Shostakovich greatly admired. Satirically subtitled “Five Romances”, the cycle was premiered by Galina Vishnevskaya in 1961. Poet and composer set about savaging both literary and musical pretensions, the first one appositely titled To the critic, the mocking reference to beards causing this writer to quizzically scratch his chin! Spring Awakens presents a determinedly unromantic and non-sentimental catalogue of seasonal activity, while Descendants makes light of the demands of posterity. The two final songs were mirror-images, the first, Misunderstanding, an ill-advised attempt at seduction involving the gulf between fantasy and reality, and the last, Kreutzer Sonata, turns the Tolstoyan short-story drama on its ear via an unlikely and delightful liason between opposites! All of this was meat and drink to a singing actress of Joanna Heslop’s talents, both musicians able to vividly convey both writer’s and composer’s delight in lampooning the self-appointed, the pre-conceived and the sentimental, currents of impulse which, of course, continue to bedevil our lives to this day.

Bravo Joanna Heslop! – we hope to hear more of you!

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