Elixir of soprano, clarinet and piano

Music by Dankworth, Spohr, Bartók, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Schubert, Liszt, Bliss, John McCabe, and Estonian Songs

Elixir: Kate Lineham (soprano), Rachel Thomson (piano), Moira Hurst (clarinet)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday 29 May 2011, 3pm

Despite the beautifully calm, sunny day, and the lack of advertising on Radio New Zealand concert earlier in the day, a good-sized audience came to hear this rather unusual ensemble perform a novel and varied programme.

However, the opening item was not a good start. The song ‘Thieving Boy’ sat too low in the voice for Kate Lineham. The lower notes did not come over to the audience in this venue.

That very morning I heard William Dart on Radio New Zealand Concert in his talk on Reynaldo Hahn, quote someone saying that classical singers should go to cabaret to learn how to deliver words. Lineham’s words when heard, were very clear.

However, much of the time, as elsewhere in the programme, the clarinet was too loud, and it was a struggle to hear the voice because of it. For the second half of the programme, I removed to the cushion-less rear of the church, and found the sound and the balance much better. I have traditionally sat in this position at Sacred Heart, for enhanced seeing and hearing, but of late have been seduced by the beautiful new seat cushions. Sunday’s experience taught me that beauty is to be preferred over comfort – even if I could not now always hear the informal spoken introductions, which were sometimes far too long and discursive, and at times repeated what was in the programme notes.

Things picked up with the gorgeous Spohr songs. We do not hear enough of this composer who, although he lived longer, was a contemporary of Beethoven, and famous in his time. Presumably the clarinet of his day was a quieter instrument than today’s model; likewise the piano. Perhaps the latter’s lid could have been on the short stick rather than fully open. The acoustic of the church is very lively, but tends to amplify the instruments more than the voice. Nevertheless, the four songs from the composer’s Six German Songs were beautifully sung, but at times it seemed like an unsuccessful fight with the instruments.

The voice needs to be the pre-eminent part, because it is delivering the words and thus the meaning of the songs, and the basis for their interpretation. There were excellent programme notes, but it would have been an added bonus to have had the full texts of the poems.

The Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík were in fact piano pieces based on folk songs collected by the composer. These were delightful short pieces, played with taste and subtlety. In the third, Poco vivo, there was a loud section; which again, reverberated rather too much in this building.

Next up were Three Vocalises by Vaughan Williams, composed in the last year of his life. It is interesting to consider how to perform songs with no words, as Moira Hurst said in her introduction – what is being expressed? There was magnificent interweaving between voice and clarinet; the composition of these pieces was deft indeed. As with the Spohr, these were pieces I had not heard before, yet were well worth hearing. The balance seemed better in these items – and one was not having to try to hear words.

The final of the three, ‘Quasi menuetto’, contained bird-like passages; perhaps not unexpected from the composer of The Lark Ascending.

Britten’s Four Cabaret Songs to words by W.H. Auden I had heard before, a number of times. While it is only fair to point out that the other singers I have heard perform them live were older and more experienced, I did feel that though the songs are brilliant and the singing was lovely, with great facial characterisation, the je ne sais quoi of cabaret was missing. The venues of the former hearings may have been a little (but not much) more conducive to that atmosphere.

The well-known ‘Tell me the truth about love’ earned its own applause which was then provided for each song in the group), though I found it over-pedalled in the piano part; the piano should surely echo the sparkle of the voice.

I felt ‘Johnny’ needed even more vocal contrast between the excited and the doleful verses, not only a dynamic contrast. This factor improved as the song went along – perhaps that was deliberate, to gradually change and deepen the realisation that Johnny was not going to stay around. Lineham has a pretty voice, but it is not especially powerful, except at the top. Again, words were very clear – but is this voice really right for cabaret songs?

The accompaniments were beautifully handled. Since the clarinet was not involved, Moira Hurst revealed the variety of her wind instrument accomplishments by playing a whistle, acting as the station-master at the conclusion the last song, Calypso, which uses train noises. She dashed through the audience while blowing, wearing an appropriate peaked cap.

After interval, we were treated to what is probably the most famous song for this combination, Schubert’s lovely Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). The balance and ensemble seemed to be a lot better – or was it because of my new position towards the rear of the church? A few small intonation wobbles couldn’t detract from a very accomplished rendition of this extended song with its ravishing melodies for both singer and clarinet.

Liszt’s Petrarch sonnet no. 123 is a very contemplative piano piece, yet has a passionate middle section, and was played with feeling; the pianissimo ending was exquisite. Again, there was too much pedal for my taste, but otherwise the work was attractively played. The programme note told us that ‘…[the] poetry is essential to understanding the music’, so why was the sonnet not printed for the audience’s added understanding?

Sir Arthur Bliss was represented by Two Nursery Rhymes, settings of ‘The Ragwort’ and ‘The Dandelion’ by Frances Cornford. Featuring quirky clarinet and piano writing, these were fun. Apparently the clarinet was being a seagull in the first song, and, more obviously, a donkey in the second. These songs suited Lineham’s voice and style very well.

A group of Estonian songs were preceded by the story of how the trio obtained these songs; a piece of real New Zealand networking and ‘who knows whom’. They proved to be very pleasing songs, though again, the lower register of the voice employed in the first song could not be heard well. The second, The Singer’s Childhood began with a very lovely unaccompanied first verse; then the clarinet joined in. It was an attractive song, the singer expressing its nostalgia feelingly.

The final song, Shepherd’s Song, with piano and clarinet, was brief and touching.

The programme ended with Three Folk Songs by John McCabe. These were settings of traditional songs: ‘Johnny has gone for a soldier’, ‘Hush-a-ba birdie’ and ‘John Peel’. All three perfomed well in these attractive songs, that gave both clarinet and voice plenty of melody, with lively, even humorous writing.

For an encore, the trio performed very effectively Stephen Sondheim’s well-known ‘Send in the Clowns’, but again the low pitch of the opening mitigated against a thoroughly satisfying performance from the singer, though the instruments gave a fine rendition.

I was a little surprised that the singer used the sheet music for all her items (as did the pianist for her solos) even following an extensive tour for Chamber Music New Zealand, during which, presumably, much the same music was performed; communication between singer and audience was good, but would have been even better without that barrier between.

Nevertheless, this concert gave its audience an interesting programme of pleasing and mainly unfamiliar songs, and demonstrated that here we have three very competent musicians.

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