Joanna Heslop sings Russian songs for St Andrew’s season

‘Russian Romances: songs by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Balakirev, Cui, Shostakovich

Joanna Heslop, soprano, and Richard Mapp, piano

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

10 March 2011, 7.30pm

Richard Greager and Marjan van Waardenberg and their supporters are to be congratulated on the variety and excellence of the concerts they are presenting in this year’s ‘Season of Concerts’ running for ten days from the date of this first presentation. It is a pity that there was not greater patronage: approximately 30 people attended this recital, into which so much work had been put. Among these it was pleasing to see a number of students of singing.

A programme of entirely Russian songs is unusual – in fact probably unique in this country. There can’t be any other New Zealand singer with the knowledge of this repertoire and language that Joanna Heslop has, after her years of residence, study and performance in Russia.

She was complemented in the most supportive and professional way possible by Richard Mapp. This was difficult music, played and sung skilfully and sympathetically. Sometimes, since the refurbishment of St. Andrew’s church, there has been a problem with the piano sounding too percussive over the new polished floor. Only in one or two first song did I find traces of this difficulty; the piano lid on the short stick and the immaculate pianism of Mapp provided thoroughly musical performances, well balanced with the voice.

There were aspects which detracted from complete enjoyment: most importantly, the lack of translations of the songs. Songs are half poetry, half music. If the audience has only the knowledge from the translated titles of what is being sung, then they cannot fully understand or enjoy what is being sung, despite beauty of tone, a certain amount of gesture and facial expression, and excellent accompaniment. Only for the Shostakovich songs at the end of the programme were we provided with printed words. It is also reasonable to expect that the poets will be credited in the programme – only Pushkin was.

The other factor was linked; a total of 25 songs in a language most of us do not understand, by a group of composers of the same nationality tends to a sameness that is a little hard to take. The famous melancholic Russian soul was very much in evidence until we got to the five Satires of Shostakovich. The first three brackets of songs had the headings ‘Inspired by Nature’, ‘Night and Dreams’, ‘Love’, and ‘Settings of Pushkin’.

The ecstatic first song (by Rimsky-Korsakov), about a lark, featured rapid staccato and triplets on the piano, while the second (Tchaikovsky), ‘The Sultana speaks to the canary’, was quieter, with a sultry Slavonic sultana delivering in a purer tone.

The next two items were from Rachmaninov; ‘Lilacs’ was quite delightful, with quite a strong character. It was soft and calm with a bird-song-like accompaniment, while the ‘Daisies’ was charming, with lovely trills accompanying the singing.

The same composer contributed the first three of five songs in the ‘Night and Dreams’ bracket. The opening song about a willow certainly had a darker sound than the songs in the previous bracket, but the willow seemed very noisy in its weeping, and the ending scream was too much for this lively acoustic.

‘I dreamed I had a native land’ was expansive yet pensive; ‘Twilight’ was rendered with lovely variety of tone and open-throated singing that was polished and refined with an easy flow.

The singing of Rimsky’s ‘A Summer Night Dream’ displayed Heslop’s ability to convey the many moods of a narrative in which a lot seemed to be going on, and achieved some fine high notes in this very melodic song. This appeared to be a difficult song for both voice and accompanist; again the final loud notes were too shrill.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Why do I love you, bright night?’ had a passionate accompaniment, and some beautiful tone from the singer. I found the amount of gesture employed rather too much at times, but it was a means for the singer to convey meaning when the audience had no words to follow.

After a short interval there were six songs grouped under the heading ‘Love’, comprising four by Tchaikovsky and one each of Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov. Here, there was greater warmth of tone and emotion, and fewer shrill top notes. Heslop’s lower register projected richly. The opening ‘Serenade’ sat well in her voice, despite the wide range of the song. A lilting character for both voice and piano was very pleasing. Intimacy was communicated through facial expression – which did not switch off the moment the song ended.

‘Amidst the noise of the ball, I saw you’ sounded familiar – perhaps its theme meant it was similar to an aria in Eugene Onegin. A song about the nightingale was most engaging and effective – dramatic, too, as was Rachmaninov’s song ‘Yesterday we met’, in a quiet way.

Rimsky’s song ‘Not a breeze’ had nevertheless a breeze-laden accompaniment. Presumably the words went on to enlarge about a breeze. It was quite lovely. Tchaikovsky’s ‘It was early spring’ had a gentle, mature sound.

The group of Pushkin songs comprised two by Cui, one by Balakirev and two by Rimsky-Korsakov. The first two were short and effective. The Balakirev song was very different from the others, but I found it too clattery. Rimsky’s first song, ‘On the hills of Georgia’, was rich and impassioned – but about what? The second was rather one too many – it became soporific having yet another baring of the mournful state of the Russian soul.

After a brief interval it was a case of ‘Now for something completely different’ (except for the language), and the singer changed from a red diaphanous stole over her black dress to a red velvet jacket. Shostakovich’s ‘Satires’ were a dynamic tour de force, and with words in the programme, coupled with the singer’s histrionic skill, the audience could empathise with the humour and irony.

The first, ‘To the critic’ and the second ‘Spring awakens’ were recitative-like. The portrayal of cats and other characters in the latter made for a mixture of drama and kitsch (no pun intended). The fast quavers and powerful triple time of the third number, ‘Descendants’, helped to tell the story of this rather macabre patter song.

‘Misunderstanding’ was acted out by the singer, in a slinky and sexy way, reminiscent of a cabaret song. The last song was entitled ‘Kreutzer Sonata’, though Beethoven would have found it surprising.

These quirky satires showed the singer off to great effect, especially her ability with characterisation. The delightful accompaniments had unexpected harmonies, twists and turns.

It was impressive that Heslop sang all these songs from memory, and that her intonation was excellent throughout, as, I am sure, was her Russian language, since she studied in Russia – but I am no judge. It was well enunciated. The voice was well produced, and in the main used admirably. These were brilliant renditions of difficult repertoire. There was a true partnership between accompanist and singer. The accompaniments sounded difficult, but were superbly played, and in the main at the right sound level.

It was good to have the opportunity to hear these songs, which one would seldom come across. Indeed, to have a song recital at all is a rare opportunity these days, so this is another point of congratulation for the organisers of these concerts.

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