The Fab Five explore neglected vocal territory at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

The Fab Five vocal quartet (Lesley Graham, Linden Loader, Richard Greager, Roger Wilson and William McElwee) and pianist Mark Dorrell

Beethoven’s Fidelio: ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’
Haydn: Die Harmonie in der Ehe; Die Warnung; Der Greis
Brahms: An die Heimat; Der Abend; Fragen, Op 64
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: ‘Selig wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht…’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 25 September, 12:15 pm

When you Google many 19th century composers and look at the list of their works, the casual browser is likely to be surprised at the number of vocal pieces that are not the usual Lieder or Mélodies or other classes of solo songs: there are collections of part-songs, songs for duet, quartet and other small ensembles, not to mention the cantatas and motets and other choral pieces. It is particularly true of Brahms.

This kind of song seems to be rather neglected today, and they are much less performed in main-stream concerts than are solo songs.

This short concert was a most striking evidence of the rewards that are awaiting the musician who ventures in that direction.

It may or may not have been an added enticement that the two groups of part-songs were book-ended by a couple of famous ensembles from German opera.  Those opening and closing pieces certainly had that effect on me.  Nevertheless, as soon as the jewel-like quartet from Fidelio gave way to the group of Haydn vocal quartets, any doubts about the latter’s charms vanished.

The quartet from Fidelio was a short but moving opening to the recital; ‘Mir is so wunderbar’ is an ensemble in canon in which each, Rocco and Jaquino, Fidelio and Marzelline contemplate their situation and futures. Lesley Graham, as Marzelline, opens in a charmingly tremulous voice followed by Linden Loader as an appropriately youthful Leonore (Fidelio); then Rocco sung by Roger Wilson, for a moment in a tenorial register and, by no means least in the quartet, Richard Greager’s less important role of Jaquino. It was all serenely supported by Mark Dorrell at the piano.

Then Haydn. Die Harmonie in der Ehe at once lifted the spirit, not a moment’s feeling that here were a few things that have been justifiably overlooked over the last century (at least). First, the sparkling, refreshing piano part from Dorrell, and then the whole quartet singing as one, yet with the character of every voice clearly delineated. The sprightly fast quavers never slackened for a moment, and the light-hearted revelling in simple pleasures could not have been better expressed.

The next two took quite different courses: Die Warnung, a semi-serious warning, in a mock, martial vein, against dangers that can emerge from unexpected quarters; and Der Greis (The Old Man), conveying a contented melancholy, reflecting on fading strength and physical attributes, and welcoming the imminence of death, in slow, legato phases, with all four singing in heart-warming balance and lovely ensemble.

The Brahms quartets came from his Op 64, written in the year 1864. In the first song, An die Heimat, the piano at first commanded attention with a rising triadic chords in quaver triplets. The sound of Brahms is always unmistakable, though it is another thing to carry it off with such naturalness and affection. How well they four captured the spirit of rather simple and improbable contentment in the pleasures of home. In the middle, there were beautiful solo episodes from Richard Greager and Linden Loader.

In Der Abend, the piano laid out a ghostly fabric, a triple rhythm sounding the first two beats of the bar, leading briefly to a charming duet between Richard Greager and Roger Wilson, resonant and comfortable, allowing Schiller’s symbolic handling of the approach of welcome death to be conveyed as if they singers really believed it. It’s a rather common subject in German Romanic poetry.

Spirits rose in the final song, Fragen – Questions. It led off in lively triple time, 6/8 I suppose, and soon floated  up to some sort of ecstatic high with the piano contributing to the joyfulness of being in love.

The Meistersinger von Nürnberg quintet arises in the scene of Act III in which Sachs has been helping Walther to shape his Prize Song, also at hand are Eva who will be Walther’s ‘prize’, and Sachs’s apprentice David and his love Magdalene who is Eva’s nurse, or maid.

The coming together represents many facets of human goodness: love, generosity of spirit, self-sacrifice, selfless renunciation of futile hopes, the power of music to elevate behaviour which involves the principal theme of the opera: the reconciliation of tradition with creativity in art. We find all these embodied in Sachs’s own nature and behaviour.

I always find this music too short and so it was here; the use of piano was no handicap, in fact Dorrell’s performance  made if sound as if Wagner had written it primarily for the piano. Here, the fifth voice, David, was provided by current NZSM voice student, tenor William McElwee, making a good impression in the piece where even small parts are to be distinguished.  So there were splendid opportunities for all five to be heard, though it was the Sachs of Wilson, the Walther of Greager and the Eva of Graham who were in the main beams of light. It brought a delightful recital to an all too early end.


Leave a Reply

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