Brio’s fantastic lunchtime explorations

Brio Vocal Ensemble Presents:
FANTASIEREISEN  (Fantastic Journeys)

WAGNER – Excerpts from “Das Rheingold”

3 Wesendonck-Lieder

R.STRAUSS – 2 Movements from Five Piano Pieces Op.3

2 Songs: – “Leises Lied” and “Zueignung”

MOZART – Excerpts from “Die Zauberflöte”

Brio: Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Catherine Leining (soprano), Jody Orgias (mezzo-soprano), Mark Bobb (tenor), Justin Pearce (bass)

Special guest appearance – Roger Wilson (bass)

Jonathan Berkahn (piano)

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

Wednesday 19th June, 2013

Fantasiereisen is not, of course, the word for a German bakery, but instead, the title chosen for the most recent of Vocal Ensemble Brio’s enterprising programmes. Presented at St.Andrew’s as part of the Lunchtime Concert Series, it featured music by Wagner, R. Strauss and Mozart, a kind of kaleidoscopic collection of operatic, vocal and instrumental works given this wonderful title (in English, this time) Fantastic Journeys. One or two rough moments put aside, I thought the presentation a great success.

It all began with part of the opening scene from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, here sung (and acted) in concert-hall style, with piano accompaniment (the music truncated here and there, but still allowing us to savour the episode’s principal themes or leitmotifs, as the composer styled them). So, Jonathan Berkahn’s skilled playing unfolded for us the themes associated with nature and with the River Rhine, before the trio of Rhinemaidens burst in on the scene, sung by Catherine Leining, Janey MacKenzie and Jody Orgias. The three sported in the river’s sparkling waters before being suddenly accosted by a dwarf, Alberich, sung here by Justin Pearce.

Of the watery trio of Maidens (I keep thinking about comedienne Anna Russell’s brilliant description of the three as “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters”), I thought Janey MacKenzie’s voice stood out when singing solo, her tones, easeful, resplendent and siren-like. When together as a threesome, each voice worked beautifully, their collective energies and impulses well-drilled, and their tones steady and mellifluous. Opposite them, Justin Pearce’s lust-crazed Alberich, though a bit papery-toned in places, was dramatically convincing – he made good use of both voice and “face” when conveying his bitter disappointment at failing to make a capture of any one of the three sisters.

In fact I was enjoying the performance so much, that the excerpt’s abrupt conclusion at that point, just before the appearance of the sun’s rays which light up the Rhinemaidens’ gold, came as an aural shock! Still, I kept my composure, and resolutely avoided causing a scene by jumping to my feet and blustering “But…but…but you can’t stop NOW!….). I did so want to hear the Rhinemaidens’ cries of “Rheingold! Rheingold!”, and especially as everybody seemed to be really getting into their parts and enjoying themselves at this juncture. I suppose, realistically, it had to stop somewhere – but one did feel, particularly at that point, as though one had been from the music “untimely ripp’d!”.

I had to be content with something completely different to follow, two movements from Richard Strauss’s Five Pieces for Piano, here played winningly by Jonathan Berkahn. First was a lovely, song-like Andante, and afterwards an “Allegro-vivace” hunting-song. The latter was music that seemed to want to take its listeners on plenty of wide-ranging adventures, including, by the sounds of things, a couple of tumbles! – all fine, and nobody hurt, save for a few bruises!

Two songs by Richard Strauss followed, both sung by Janey MacKenzie. The first, Lieses Lied, (Gentle Song) was delicately essayed by both voice and piano, the singer readily negotiating the song’s high tessitura, and with only a moment of strain at the top of an ascent, near the end – the rest was a delight. As for the well-known Zueignung (Dedication), the great rolling phrases were beautifully arched, and expansively negotiated, as was the final verse’s climactic high note, thrillingly attacked and attained.

I couldn’t help but feel for Jody Orgias, singing three of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder in the wake of the resonances of Margaret Medlyn’s stunning performance of the whole set just recently – her feeling for the music was evident, but I felt the songs needed more, here, lacking the ambient Tristan-esque charge that both orchestra and a more focused vocal outpouring was able to generate at that NZSM concert. I thought the singer was elsewhere able to display her abilities far more readily in the operatic excerpts, where her unfailing sense of the stage and of how words and situations interact was evident. The Magic Flute excerpts which concluded the concert found her, I thought, much more at ease.

Throughout the concert Jonathan Berkahn’s piano playing had given us considerable pleasure thus far – unfortunately his somewhat untidy playing of an unfinished Mozart sonata-movement made a less-than-positive impression. The intention was partly to demonstrate an instance of the composer’s occasional forays into uncharacteristically stormier territories – but even when stormy and stressful Mozart’s music requires a kind of elegance and sense of proportion (it’s part of what makes his music so terribly difficult to get right, and especially on a modern piano, where the music’s figurations and textures are often made to sound ungainly).

Happily the Magic Flute exerpts seemed to right these very few wrongs, and provide a suitably fantastic, as well as heart-warming finish to the presentation. For the first exerpt, which was the duet “Bei Mannern”, featuring Papageno, the bird-catcher, and Pamina, the captive princess, bass Roger Wilson stepped into the breach to replace an ailing performer at short notice, partnering Janey MacKenzie, the give-and-take between the two remarkable throughout, even if I felt the piece’s basic tempo was too quick to allow the singers time to properly “round off” their phrase-ends – Pamina’s lovely arching line right at the end, for example, here sounding a shade fettered, and wanting just a little more freedom.

Finally came the “padlocked mouth” quintet, with Justin Pearce reclaiming the character of Papageno and enjoying his “Hm-hm-hm-hm”s, and tenor Mark Bobb giving us a small-voiced but elegant Tamino (the prince in pursuit of Pamina – perhaps it was his eagerness which contributed to the men’s music being rushed ever so slightly) –  still, the voices blended nicely in the ensembles, nowhere more beautifully than in the “Three Boys” sequences (surely some of the most sublime music written by anybody!) sung by both the trio of women and the Tamino/Papageno duo, before the final “Lebt wohl” exchanges at the end.

All in all, a pleasure to report that these journeyings through fantastic lands were well worth the making.











Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *