Liederabend: A recital of Schubert, Wolf and Strauss
Margaret Medlyn and Richard Greager, accompanied by Bruce Greenfield
Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University
Thursday, 23 June 2011, 7.30pm
An enthusiastic and appreciative, though not large, audience greeted these three very experienced and accomplished musicians. It was a treat to have a substantial lieder recital like this – and only a day after senior students of the New Zealand School of Music performed lieder at St. Andrew’s on The Terrace.
The programme began with Richard Greager and Bruce Greenfield performing six of Schubert’s songs: some well-known, such as the opening An Sylvia and others less familiar.
In the carpeted Hunter Council Chamber, and with such experienced performers, the piano could be played with the lid on the long stick, in contrast to the different situation at St. Andrew’s on The
Terrace the previous day.
Greager sang An Sylvia apparently effortlessly, in most a musical performance, though perhaps lacking a little subtlety in this German translation of Shakespeare’s incomparable words.
The next song, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren (Boatman’s song to the Dioscuri) featured the lovely darker colours of Richard Greager’s lower notes, while Greenfield brought out much in the marvellous accompaniment. It was interesting that this and three others of the six songs featured water, a point of comment in regarding the Schubert , the previous day.
Im Frühling sounded a little prosaic – as if the singer had seen many springs. In contrast, I found latter part of the performance a little too operatic at times for an innocent song such as this. Nevertheless, Greager demonstrated amply how to use words as part of the musical expression, yet not interfere with the flow of the music.
Fischerweise (Fisherman’s ditty) had both performers (Greager and Greenfield) giving a thorough exposition of the words, as set by Schubert, of another watery song – in subject, not in presentation.
Auf Der Bruck (At Bruck), being about a ride on a horse, naturally had the clip-clop of horses’ hooves in the accompaniment. It was a strong and vigorous interpretation of this demanding song, from both musicians, who reached a considerable volume, compared with some of the more contemplative songs, such as the final Schubert one, Der Jüngling an der Quelle (The youth by the spring). This was a real contrast. Although the tenor’s voice is perhaps not what it was, the song was performed with real artistry. The accompaniment, as elsewhere, was very descriptive and quite beautiful, though apparently simple.
After the break we moved to Hugo Wolf’s settings of Eduard Mörike’s poems. Wolf was far from being the only composer to set his perceptive and sensitive poetry. The music entailed a considerable change of character from that of Schubert. Expressiveness poured from every syllable of Margaret Medlyn’s performance of Der Genesene an die Hoffunung (A convalescent’s address to hope). The clarity of the piano part was particularly notable. Medlyn employs more facial expression and gesture than does Greager, and it seemed to me that this did not suit the songs well, nor did these songs suit her as well as did the later Strauss lieder. Richard Greager sang the following
Auf eine Wanderung (On a walk) with great liveliness. The modulations in the piano part were largely responsible for making this a very varied song. It was a wonderful, accompaniment,
walking quickly along with the singer; both introduced a variety of different colours.
The words of Gesang Weylas (Weyla’s song) spoke of radiance. Medlyn’s voice summoned that radiance as much as the arpeggio accompaniment did. Greager sang Der Tambour (The drummer boy); a highly wrought song that made me wonder if Wolf did not rather over-modulate, creating a fevered effect. Greager sang the words so meaningfully that the audience was drawn in – a sign perhaps of his long experience as an opera singer. He continued with Gebet (Prayer), which created a wonderful atmosphere through its solemnity, stillness, and four-part harmonies.
Margaret Medlyn returned with An den Schlaf (To sleep), in which the accompaniment pointed up the ambiguity of the words about sleep, dying and living. She followed this with Elfenlied (Elf song), which featured rapid elfin-like steps in the piano part, requiring a lot of rapid finger-work. Medlyn made the humour of the song very clear: the elf’s foolish mistakes because he had not had enough sleep.
Richard Greager’s Neue liebe (New love) in its contemplation of a relationship with God, I found rather too loud in the relatively small auditorium.
A very dramatic presentation by Margaret Medlyn of Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens (A girl’s first love song) seemed rather too biting for a first love song; I thought it should have been rather more innocent. Granted, it had a startling accompaniment. Questioning innocence in both the
accompaniment and in Richard Greager’s eyes featured in Peregrina I, while in Peregrina II, there was the same questing figure in the dreamy accompaniment. The singer used his breath as an expressive device to good effect.
The final song, Im Frühling (In the Spring) had an interesting piano part, easily as important as the voice’s music. Medlyn was in great vocal form, the subtlety of her singing matching the
subtlety of the words and music.
Now for something completely different: Richard Strauss songs, all sung by Margaret Medlyn. As her programme note pointed out, the piano parts seemed to be ‘conceived with an orchestral palette in mind.’ Who better than Bruce Greenfield, accustomed over many years to playing orchestral reductions of operas, to be the accompanist? Befreit (Release) had the singer carry the lines forward most beautifully. The third verse, about being freed from sorrow at the death of the spouse, was very emotional, and very well sung. The next was a more straightforward song: Gefunden (Found). Like the other Strauss songs, this suited Medlyn. This one gave lovely opportunity for her to journey through her vocal range.
In Blindenklage (Blind man’s lament) a dramatic song, I found Medlyn’s acting out the drama with gesture a little hard to watch; I would have preferred less gesture. Greenfield displayed masterful playing of these difficult Strauss scores.
Mit deinen blauen Augen (With your blue eyes) was sung quite beautifully, and was a welcome pause between the two highly dramatic and fervent songs around it. It was much simpler melodically and in the piano part, but quite delightful. As elsewhere, Medlyn sang with emotional generosity.
Finally, we had Frühlinsfeier (Spring celebration). The conflicting emotions portrayed were emphasised with switches between major and minor tonalities. This made for complicated music, and operatic-style anguish. The final sensational lines on the death of Adonis was an appropriate point of finality at which to end the recital.
This was a beautifully put-together programme of contrasting composers’ settings of fine poetry. The singers used the printed scores for the most part. But this in no way inhibited their fine performances. The printed programmes contained translations of all the songs – and it was good to see the translators credited as well as the poets.
The singers had also provided interesting notes about each of the three composers and their songs. Illustrations comprised portraits of the three composers, and two apt paintings by Caspar Friedrich (1774-1840). The recital represented a tour de force on the part of accompanist par excellence, Bruce Greenfield.