Nature, Life and Love – Pepe Becker and Helen Webby

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

Pepe Becker and Helen Webby – Love’s Nature

Pepe Becker (soprano)

Helen Webby (harps)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 5th September, 2012

As soon as both singer and harpist made their antiphonal entrances from each side of the platform, we were spellbound, caught up in a rainbow of enchantment between the two performers, one whose contours had already begun encircling the enraptured audience. With sweet and true singing, supported by the softest, most beguiling harp-tones, the musicians conjured up sounds which gave these visual illusions substance, even if at times the tones took on an ethereal, unearthly quality that belied their worldly origins. All of this was without any help from extra-musical effects – what immediately came to my mind was that the musicians could have entered by candlelight, and/or the church’s lighting could have been dimmed at the outset, and gradually brought up as the performers advanced towards the centre. Still, the music was the thing – if one had shut one’s eyes it would have been easy to imagine those sounds wafting and undulating towards one’s ears from across the ages.

From the very outset Pepe Becker’s voice was sweet and true and Helen Webby’s harp-playing deliciously evocative. The opening music was a well-known Sequentia composed by the wondrous Hildegarde of Bingen, the eleventh-century composer, poet, abbess and mystic, someone whose music has come to define the typical sound of music-making in the middle ages, at once austere and richly-laden, simple,yet resonating with meaning – as the program note put it so succinctly, “a rapturous chant of devotion to the Virgin Mary”, O viridissima virga, the sounds as miraculous as the subject-matter. Cut from similar “old” cloth was a love-song by Guillaume de Machaut, Comment-qu’a moy lonteinne, lovely “modal-scaled” melody, the harp following the voice, but enjoying several solo-instrument sequences. The song’s triple-time metre meant that the music danced as well – and having the texts and translations in the program gave we listeners even closer proximity to the music’s actual substance and meaning.

The singer welcomed the audience to the concert at this point, talking about the places the musicians had already performed the program and where they were about to go next, describing for us the undertaking by the pair as a “road tour”. Introductions and overviews completed, bardic harp was then exchanged for a bigger, less mobile concert instrument, and the performers gave us two delightful Italian madrigals. The first by Francesco Landini, Fa metter bando (Let it be proclaimed), dating from the 14th Century, was a droll pronouncement regarding lovers’ behavior. The second, by Cipriano da Rore, Ancor che col partire (Though on departing), written two centuries later, played with the contrasting idea of lovers’ pain at parting enhancing the pleasure of reunitement. Silken vocal lines wafted beautifully over the harp’s resonances throughout, the feeling at once touching and dignified, expressed within a kind of ritual processional.

I hadn’t heard Pepe Becker sing in English for some time; and felt that, during the Purcell item If Music be the Food of Love, beautiful though her tones were, she needed to give the words’ consonants more emphasis, as the effect was a shade bland – it didn’t feel to me that the words were being “savoured” enough. Whether speakers of Italian would feel the same way when listening to her Monteverdi or (as here) Handel singing, I can’t say – but the effect of listening to an exerpt from the opera Rinaldo was, to my ears, enchanting all over again, Handel’s heroine Almirena bemoaning her fate at being captured by the sorceress Armida, and separated from her lover, Rinaldo.

Helen Webby then “wowed” us with a harp instrumental, a Fantasie in C Minor by Louis Spohr, dark, dramatic and gothic throughout the opening, and reminding one of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Piano Sonata with its recitative-like flourishes, everything modulating freely and wondrously – virtuoso stuff, right to the end. The composer wrote the work for his wife, Dorette Scheidler, a virtuoso harpist, who must have been thrilled and truly grateful at receiving something so overtly spectacular to play. From this “Sturm und Drang” outpouring, it was but a short step to the world of Robert Schumann, in an exerpt from his Requiem. Pepe Becker brought a distinctive timbre to this world of dark, romantic feeling – at first, I must confess, I thought her tones too pure, too unequivocal in colouring to convey the music’s rich darkness, in fact, too much like a boy soprano. But she sustained her line beautifully with great intensity, and some spectacular high notes, at one point blinding us with the beauty of such a sequence around a particular phrase in the middle of the song.

Again in the French settings, more particularly in the first, a song by Andre Caplet, Doux fut le trait (Sweet was the dart), I thought the voice had a purity slightly at odds with the sensuality of the experience described in the poem (but could someone then explain to me how the same instrument, when singing Monteverdi madrigals, seems to have sensuality to burn?). More suited to her voice was, I thought, the Ravel song, Chanson de la mariée (Song of the Bride), the first of the composer’s “Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques”, the jeweled elegance of Ravel’s superbly contrived art so exquisitely realized, here, by both singer and harpist.

After the interval we enjoyed three of Philip Cannon’s “Five Songs of Women”, with texts by the composer’s wife, Jacqueline Laidlaw. The songs exist in both in French and English versions, the latter being performed here. Pepe Becker actually tore into the first one The Angry Wife with great gusto, relishing the words and giving us virtuoso singing. Though she put across the second song The Widow with touching pathos, fining her tone down to a ghostly-voiced conclusion, I still felt she needed to give those consonants a bit of real sting in places, to give the feeling more readily of “owning” each and every word. The effect in the third song was much the same – beautifully -shaped vocalizing, the line pitched to perfection, but the effect overall just a shade bland. It occurs to me that much the same used to be said of Joan Sutherland’s singing on the operatic stage, the exquisite tones somewhat unrelieved by a lack of sharp-edged consonants, depriving each word and its meaning of a properly-contoured shape. (But, in Monteverdi……)

New Zealand composer Helen Bowater wrote Hihi in 2007, a Messiaen-like piece depicting both the call and the environs of the native hihi, or stitchbird, presented here by Helen Webby with many magical, haunting touches – the harp’s strings activated in so many different ways. Then it was Pepe Becker’s turn, with an unaccompanied setting of an anonymous Japanese text, Hoshi no hayashi, dating from the 8th Century AD, a mesmeric evocation of the workings of the skies, the effect not unlike Sibelius’s Luonnotar, in places. Still more New Zealand music was featured, with Gareth Farr’s Still Sounds Lie, vivid settings of somewhat ingenuous words by Carolyn Mills, the NZSO’s harpist, recounting holiday-inspired thoughts and impressions, and with attractively energized accompanying figurations carrying an interest of their own for the ear (Elgar performed the same kind of musical alchemy for much of the poetry in his song-cycle “Sea Pictures”).

The concert concluded with a section devoted to folk-song, arrangements of both traditional Irish and Scottish tunes, featuring the talents of such luminaries as Josef Haydn and Hamilton Harty. Helen Webby told us, by way of introducing the segment, of Haydn’s generosity towards an impecunious English music-publisher, William Napier, the great composer gifting his arrangement of a number of Scottish songs to the hapless Napier, who had been threatened with debtor’s prison. Singer and harpist put across both of the Haydn settings, Secret Love, and On a green day with a winning mix of art and spontaneity, as did Pepe Becker’s realization of Hamilton Harty’s arrangement of the Irish air, My Lagan Love. Before this, and the singer’s wonderfully plaintive delivery of another Irish song, Black is the colour, we got a couple of “harp jigs”, then afterwards an arrangement of Sting’s Fields of Gold made by Helen Webby and an older “jig” by Machaut obviously connected to the song heard earlier in the concert, as it shared the same name, Comment qu’a moy.

And, to finish, singer became fellow-instrumentalist and harpist became fellow-singer in the pair’s arrangement of the Irish song The little drummer. So the harp was joined by a drum and two voices intoned the song’s final verse, celebrating the triumph of love and the joy of whole-hearted music-making. We in the audience saluted the pair with all the applause we could muster at the end, in return for an excellent evening’s entertainment and delight.








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