Douglas Lilburn’s “Winterreise” twice-told by Roger Wilson and Bruce Greenfield

The Flowers of the Sea :  A Celebration of New Zealand Music

LILBURN – Sings Harry (words by Denis Glover) / Elegy (words by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell)

DOORLY – The Songs of the Morning

FREED – The Sea Child (words by Katherine Mansfield) / War with the Weeds (words by Keith Sinclair)

BODY – Songs My Grandmother Sang

Roger Wilson (baritone)

Bruce Greenfield (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn Rd., Lower Hutt

Wednesday 5th October 2011

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

Wednesday 2nd November 2011 

One should never underestimate the power of headlines as attention-grabbers! Experience suggests that some of these printed declamations are blatantly untrue, some patently absurd, and still others somewhat far-fetched (the few that are left have the merest grain of verisimilitude).

In the present case, equating Douglas Lilburn’s 1951 song-cycle Elegy with Schubert’s Winterreise might be an impertinence for some people – in which case they will qualify the heading of this review for one or more of the three counts listed above – but at least they’ll have read this far, and might be tempted to go on, ready to “pounce on the howlers”, on further absurdities and exaggerations. I take full responsibility for the said impertinence.

Whatever the reader’s thoughts might be concerning the relative merits of both Schubert’s and Lilburn’s similarly “well-weathered” cycles, the parallels between each composer’s work are fascinating. Certainly, the theme of anguish through loss expressed over the course of a number of songs is not uncommon in the European art-song tradition, something that Douglas Lilburn, being no mean Schubertian as suggested by some of his own compositional inclinations (especially in his piano music) would have been well aware of.

Grief to breaking-point – that is what we encounter in Schubert; and the grief of loss is all too palpably expressed in Lilburn’s settings of Alistair Campbell’s Elegy poems as well. These were written by the poet to commemorate the death of a friend in a mountaineering accident among the Southern Alps in 1947. It’s true that the consequences for the poet in the latter are rather less injurious in mind or body than the death and derangement depicted in the Schubert cycles – possibly because in Elegy a young man’s death is the work’s pre-given starting-point – and a good deal of the grief and anger seems to be “shared” by the rugged New Zealand alpine landscape, dramatically beset by elemental storms, enabling a fierce and harrowing process of reconciliation in the face of a harsh natural order of things.

Giving rise to these thoughts was a pair of performances I heard recently of the Elegy cycle by baritone Roger Wilson, with pianist Bruce Greenfield. The first occasion, in Lower Hutt’s Church of St.Mark, Woburn, was apparently a hastily-organised affair in response to a cancellation of an already-scheduled concert; while the second took place in Wellington under similar circumstances, as a “filler” for another cancelled concert, this time at St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace. Incidentally, Bruce Greenfield was a last-minute ring-in at Lower Hutt, as pianist Gillian Bibby, who’d performed most of this program with Roger Wilson earlier in the year in Wanganui, had commitments elsewhere. Singer and substitute pianist had performed some of Elegy together before, but the pair had never collaborated in Lilburn’s “other” song-cycle, Sings Harry, (a 1953 setting of six of Denis Glover’s eponymous poems). As well, there were two other brackets of works, each of which had a “family connection” with the singer, and, in conclusion, Jack Body’s quixotic Songs My Grandmother Sang.

(At this point I ought to warn readers that this is going to be a longer-than-usual review – the two Lilburn song-cycles are of such importance, to “pass lightly” over them seems to me a near-criminal offence! So, I’m recording my impressions of both works and comparing the two performances as best I can.)

Having recently made a study of Lilburn’s Elegy for a radio programme I was thrilled to be able to hear the work performed “live”, especially from an artist who hadn’t recorded the cycle. Just as fascinating was the context of the performances, in each case paired with Sings Harry, a combination of contrasts that I’d discussed in conversation with a number of singers and pianists. Here, I thought each work the perfect foil for the other, both stronger and more sharply-focused by juxtaposition, as it were – even if the effect of the pairing underlined the lightweight nature of the remainder of the programme’s music.

Wisely, the pair began in each case with Sings Harry, Bruce Greenfield’s piano-playing salty and pungent from the beginning, the notes of that opening strummed like those of a guitar. Roger Wilson’s voice was of a balladeer’s of old, the words self-deprecatory but intensely noble, deserving of the moment of stillness at the end. The following “When I am old” glinted with droll humour and defiance of age, the rollicking rhythms suggesting flashes of past energies and impulses (“Girls on bicycles turning into the wind….”). I thought the Lower Hutt performance of this a little more “buccaneering” than the Wellington one, the latter seeming more wry and even detached, the mood slightly more resilient.

Pianist and singer arched “Once the days were clear” beautifully, emphasizing the writing’s structural integrity, very Bach-like in its fusion of strength and poetry. The lines rose and fell with a spacious and noble grace, though the singer’s phrase-ends in both instances seemed to be given not quite sufficient “breath” to sustain a floating quality on the last couple of notes. By contrast, energy and confidence abounded throughout the performances of”The Casual Man”, a kind of “credo” of the free spirit, the singer’s aspect very masculine and devil-may-care, voice and piano managing the “throwaway” mood to perfection.

Occasionally performed on its own as an “encore” item, the achingly beautiful “The Flowers of the Sea” sets the “then against now” of the hero in a context of timelessness. The voice points the contrasts of youthful strength and aged compliance, and the volatile passions of former times with the resignation of experience; while the piano delineates the omnipresent rise and fall of the tides and the calls of the sea-birds throughout. Roger Wilson made much of the “youth-and-age” progressions, every line’s meaning given its proper emphasis and gravitas. In the Lower Hutt performance the voice’s final sustained note sounded to my ears a shade flattened throughout “….for the tide comes and the tide goes, and the wind blows…”, whereas in Wellington, the line seemed truer-toned, but not quite as emotionally charged.

For a long while the only commercial recording available of Sings Harry was on a Kiwi Records EP featuring tenor Terence Finnegan and pianist Frederick Page; and that performance burned itself into the collective musical consciousness of New Zealand music aficionados, retaining people’s affection (and allegiance) for the last fifty-odd years, notwithstanding the subsequent appearance of one or two competitors. Despite some idiosyncratic touches on the part of both singer and pianist, their performance of the final song, “I remember” seemed to me to capture not only the childhood reminiscences of a still-vigorous old man, but the ambiences of those times and since – “…and a boy lay still, by the river running down – sings Harry” – if a more matter-of-fact delineation of the passing of childhood than Dylan Thomas’s in his poem “Fern Hill”, it’s one that’s just as telling in its own way.

Like Frederick Page was able to do, Bruce Greenfield observed the staccato patterning of the piano part without sacrificing its warmth and resonance, the notes “hanging together” rather than picked out drily and unatmospherically. The golden tones this song sets in motion always remind me of a Don Binney painting, “Sun shall not burn thee by day, nor moon by night…” the light and heat warming the far-off days brought to mind by the poetry, sparking further memories of uncles leaving the farm to go to war or look for a place in the sun elsewhere. Roger Wilson’s “My father held to the land” had a stirring “Where are the Yeomen – the Yeomen of England?” kind of declamatory force, contrasting this with a boy’s delight in growing up “like a shaggy steer, and as swift as a hare”, both sentiments vividly and first-handedly realized in each performance. How affecting, then, the singer’s distancing of his tones at “But that was long ago…” on each occasion both musicians drawing us into the world of dreams and “child of air” evocations, and leaving us there, a cherishable moment inviolate in the memory…….

Roger Wilson introduced each of the cycles at each recital, thoughtfully sparing us some of the end-to-end impact of contrast between the two. Lilburn’s earlier setting of Elegy is anything but elegiac at the outset, a savage, biting evocation of a storm, the piano angrily preparing the way for the singer’s declamations, the voice here wonderfully sepulchral in places such as the line “whose colossal grief is stone”. The following “Now he is dead’, funeral-march-like at the outset, builds the rugged landscape rock by rock, the voice rolling majestically up and over the phrase “the storm-blackened lake” (somehow making a more visceral impact at Lower Hutt, though the scene’s wild grandeur was vividly presented on both occasions). Similarly, the brooding wildness of “Now sleeps the gorge” grew inexorably towards the majestic “O this bare place…” both musicians drawing on elemental energies and impulses, and washing the sounds over our sensibilities like an ocean wave over a swimmer.

There’s little physical respite for both singer and pianist throughout the cycle – though “Reverie”, with its JS Bach-like opening (as pianist Margaret Nielsen pointed out to me, with a pair of prominent oboes in thirds in the piano part) plots a course through rivulets of uneasy calm, briefly rising at the end with “wind’s disconsolate cry”. Roger Wilson again delivered the great surgings whole-heartedly, though the voice sounded curiously disembodied at the beginning, seemingly reluctant to “fill out” the tones, and making for a somewhat bleached effect. Incisive, glittering tones from Bruce Greenfield’s piano introduced “Driftwood”, all energy and volatility at the beginning, the singer’s diction clear but avoiding self-consciousness, making the poetry really work instead of over-pointing its slightly “arch” quality. The low notes really told, driving the energies inward to dark, almost sinister places, establishing a properly tragic mood at the end.

The last three songs move us more closely to the spirit of the young climber whose life was lost so tragically – though still making reference to landscape features, the language integrates the setting more readily with aspects of a personality – “a storm-begotten grace /and a great gentleness” in “Wind and Rain”, for example, and “the mind like the spring tide / beautiful and calm” in the final “The Laid-out body”. And if opinions differ regarding the implications of “bright flesh that made my black nights sweet”, the overall abiding impression is of a youthful intensity of feeling radiating through Campbell’s language – one that Lilburn’s overwhelming and full-blooded musical response to matches most appropriately.

There’s something ritualistic about key episodes in each of these final songs – there’s the quiet resignation of “Wind and Rain”, the remarkably agitated “Farewell”, whose pianistic convolutions repeatedly dash themselves against a steady, remorseless vocal line, and the noble declamations of “The Laid-out body” (the latter something of a poetic “conceit” as the young climber’s body was unfortunately lost by the recovery team down a crevasse). Throughout these and their contrasting sequences, the music’s beauty, nobility, anguish and resignation was conveyed in rich quantities by both musicians, each of the two performances carrying its own particular distinction. Surprisingly, I found the earlier Lower Hutt occasion more involving, despite (or perhaps partly because of) the vicissitudes of the venue, such as the less-than-responsive piano. But, especially in the case of Elegy, each performance did ample justice to a work whose stature, for me, grows with every hearing.

Had the concerts presented only the two Lilburn song cycles, I would have had no complaint – but we were generously treated to some lighter fare by way of contrast to the coruscations we’d just experienced, which was a reasonable enough scheme. The first of two groups of items with which the singer had a family connection was called The Songs of the Morning, referring to a collection of songs written by Roger Wilson’s grandfather, Gerald Dooley, intended for performance during a sea voyage to the Antarctic in 1902, on a ship (the SY “Morning”) upon which he was the 3rd Officer.

The ship’s engineer, J.D.Morrison wrote the words for most of the songs, two of which, “The Ice King” and “Yuss”, were performed for us here, with considerable gusto. The first, very British and patriotic-sounding, redolent of Sullivan, went with a fine swing, pianistic drum-beats and all; while the second “Yuss” was a proper British Tar’s song, complete with sailor’s accent, and quirky, almost Schumannesque piano part.

Dorothy Freed (1919-2000) a prominent music librarian and composer, was the aforementioned Gerald Doorly’s daughter, and therefore Roger Wilson’s aunt. Her song The Sea Child won an APRA prize in 1957, and some time later was recorded by Margaret Medlyn and Bruce Greenfield, on Kiwi-Pacific SLD-110. Compared with what I remembered of Medlyn’s lyrical-voiced rendition, Wilson’s voice on both outings seemed to me too dark and earthy, and even occasionally unsure of pitch (the vocal line is beautiful but challenging). Better was the second song, Freed’s setting of Keith Sinclair’s War with the Weeds, a stirring march redolent of endless combat and eventual compromise with nature. I found the words not ideally clear, but the singer conveyed enough of the sense of things for the work to make an appropriate impression.

To finish, we in the audience were given the opportunity to fill our lungs afresh and join in with a few choruses from three of Jack Body’s Songs My Grandmother Sang. Before we began, Bruce Greenfield cautioned the audience not to take any notice of his accompaniments, describing them for us as “quite mad” – though anybody familiar with Benjamin Britten’s folksong settings wouldn’t have been too perturbed by Body’s “exploratory counterpoints”. I think we enjoyed the third song, “Daisy Bell” the best, as much because of hearing the rarely-performed verses belonging to the chorus that most people would readily recognize, thus:

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,

I’m half crazy, all for the love of you;

It won’t be a stylish marriage – I can’t afford a carriage!

But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two!”

But ultimately it was the pairing of the two Lilburn works that I thought gave these concerts such distinction – especially as they were performed with the kind of conviction that makes the stuff of musical history. Is that yet another headline I can feel coming on?……..


















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