Breaking the song recital drought with a fine, adventurous recital of unfamiliar songs by great composers

Songbook: ‘Stormy Weather’; songs of the wind

Songs by Wolf, Massenet, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, George Crumb, Lilburn, Copland, Gurney, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, Frank Bridge, Debussy, Schubert, R. Strauss, Schoenberg, Fernando Sor.

Barbara Paterson and Barbara Graham (sopranos), Elisabeth Harris (mezzo-soprano), Ben Reason (baritone), Simon Brew (saxophone), Catherine Norton (piano)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Friday 1 April 2016, 7.30pm

Another concert by Songbook, mainly featuring different singers from those in the concert I reviewed favourably last June. The laudatory remarks I made then apply again. Despite the theme, which may have seemed appropriate for Wellington (there was little wind at that stage of the evening, though some light rain), there was huge variety in the programme, not least in the length of the songs, from very short to quite long. The concert attracted a good-sized audience, including numerous singers.

It was a well-constructed programme (would such a concert have been possible pre-Google?) that held the attention throughout. Of the 18 songs presented, three were by Wolf, being settings of poems by Eduard Mörike. Other items were ‘one-offs”. Even Schubert was only represented once. It was splendid to hear a concert consisting of so many unfamiliar songs by leading composers.

Again for this concert, the printed programme had all the words and English translations clearly printed in fine type-faces on quality paper, and dates for composers and poets were given. (I’m horrified that CD booklets do not always give the dates, or poets’ names, even for recordings of famous singers.)

To open the programme, Barbara Paterson sang ‘Lied vom Winde’ by Wolf. It was an exciting song, and given an exciting and accomplished performance by both musicians. The accompaniment Catherine Norton played was quite astonishingly demanding and brilliant. Barbara Graham was up next, singing ‘Pirouchette’ by Jules Massenet, a conversation between a little girl and an unknown person, about the Mistral wind. This was another lively song – the evening’s winds were certainly speedy, so far! It was a wonderful performance, with subtlety and Barbara Graham’s accomplishment in the French language was a delight that continued in the next song, Poulenc’s ‘Air vif’, that lived up to its name.

We then heard from Ben Reason, a younger singer. He has a good, strong voice, but perhaps could have been a little more contemplative in his rendering of Vaughan Williams’s ‘On Wenlock Edge’. The Adam Concert Room is quite a small auditorium; full voice can be a little hard on the ears. Another little point: the way he sang the short ‘i’ vowel, as in ‘it’ and ‘in’, is rather ugly.

Elisabeth Harris sings better each time I hear her, and the George Crumb song ‘Wind Elegy’ suited her voice; she used the words beautifully. Lilburn’s setting of James K. Baxter’s ‘Blow, wind of fruitfulness’ was sung by Ben Reason, accompanied by piano and saxophone (the original setting is for viola), the latter played by Simon Brew. Ben’s tone was pleasing, though the ‘i’ sound again was not quite right in the word ‘wind’. It was a tasteful, interesting and attractive saxophone part. The music sympathetically set Baxter’s marvellous poem, and all the words were very clear, as they were from the other singers throughout the evening.

Barbara Paterson returned to sing Aaron Copland’s ‘There came a wind like a bugle’. From here on, music scores were used for most of the performances. This was very understandable in this case; the music was all over the place in this setting of words by Emily Dickinson. The singer coped well. (Sorry!) ‘Black Stitchel’ by Ivor Gurney was sung by Ben Reason. I would have liked a slightly lighter manner of rendition for this song, from both voice and piano, even though some of the words (by Wilfrid W. Gibson) were quite serious. Again, the singing was overblown at times for this venue.

‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ by Brahms is a lullaby of Spanish origin, in which the poet (the German Emanuel Geibel) exhorts the wind to be still, because the child is sleeping. The translation was beautiful. Elisabeth Harris sang it, with saxophone obbligato (again, the original was viola). She displayed excellent control of dynamics, and her words were very clearly pronounced. The saxophone was played sensitively, with subtlety appropriate to the theme.

Now for some Russian music; Barbara Paterson sang the language well and confidently, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘It was not the wind’; words by Tolstoy. It was a very touching song. A short song ‘Far, far from each other’ by Frank Bridge sung by Elisabeth Harris featured the saxophone (viola) again. It was attractively considered, with meaning given to both words and music.

Barbara Paterson returned with ‘An eine Aeolsharfe” by Wolf. The Aeolian harp was effectively conveyed in the music, which was given dramatic variation by the singer. It ended with a lovely piano postlude. A short Debussy song, ‘Zéphyr – Triolet à Philis’ received from Barbara Graham excellent treatment of the language, and a lively interpretation.

Schubert’s appearance in the programme was with ‘Suleika’, sung by Barbara Paterson. The busy accompaniment underlined the theme of the wind; the song was full of character. The next song (from the same singer) was ‘Begegnung’ by Wolf, who seems to have written a lot of songs about weather.

Strauss tackled the weather, too, with ‘Schlechtes Wetter’, a poem by Heinrich Heine, sung by Barbara Graham. Her low notes in this song were very good; the charming nature of the song was highlighted by the piano accompaniment, especially at the end. Schoenberg may not be particularly noted for his songs, but ‘Einfältiges Lied’ was an amusing song about a king going for a walk. Barbara Graham emphasised its humorous nature, singing it with exaggerated drama, not least in her facial expressions.

Finally, the three women sang an arrangement of a Spanish song by Fernando Sor: ‘Cuantas naves’, or ‘How many ships. This was a light-hearted end to a fine concert of song. Catherine Norton’s accompaniments were simply outstanding. Thank you, Catherine, for giving us another song recital, breaking the drought there has been in this genre for years. (Time was when we had such recitals in the Festival!) Bravo Songbook!

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