A score of Schubert songs
Barbara Paterson, Maaike Christie Beekman and Jared Holt and Bruce Greenfield (piano)
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday 5 June 2016, 6:30 pm
I got to four of the five concerts in this splendid little Schubert Festival which I like to refer to as a Schubertiade. I know of no other such social/musical circle that formed spontaneously around a living composer; the sure sign that not only did plenty of people in the Vienna of the 1820s recognize Schubert’s enormous gifts, but they actually loved the guy.
The most famous contemporary version of the institution is in the small towns Hohenems and Schwarzenberg in the Vorarlberg province of Austria, close to Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The festival, growing bigger every year, moves between Hohemens and Schwarzenberg six times from late April to early November; there are about 90 concerts each year, and many are hard to get tickets for.
They feature song, piano recitals and all kinds of chamber music, and for many years the music has extended well beyond Schubert, and just occasionally reaches before 1800 and after 1900. Think of almost any prominent name and you’re almost certain to find him or her appearing at some stage each year.
Wellington’s version isn’t quite as busy. Five concerts involving about 22 musicians, with attendances at the concerts I attended between 40 and 70, at a guess; but the quality of the audience members was, naturally very high: quality, not quantity.
However, the series is a huge credit to the perseverance and judgement of Richard Greager and Marjan van Waardenberg.
All the earlier concerts were of solo piano or chamber music, but the Saturday and Sunday evenings were in part or wholly devoted to song. This one consisted of 19 songs, from three singers, covering the range of fachs from soprano through mezzo to baritone.
The opening songs were familiar and among the best loved; one with a melody that was used in a great string quartet, and ending with deep Angelegenheit with ‘An die Musik’.
The singers scattered their offerings throughout the programme. From high to low voice:
Soprano Barbara Paterson began hers with one of the three popular songs that opened the recital: ‘Frühlingsglaube’ (Faith in Spring). Hers is a high, bright soprano which could not have matched the song’s spirit more successfully. She next sang three of the so-called ‘Mignon songs’, from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Schubert set the three Mignon poems several times; the group listed in Deutsch’s catalogue as No 877, published as Op 62 in 1826, included four songs, including the 5th and 6th settings of ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht…’. There was more than one setting of the other two poems as well. There is also the famous ‘Kennst du das Land’, D 321
The first was ‘Heiss mich nicht reden’, which Paterson sang with a voice that alternated between timidity and boldness; though I’ve heard this sung by a mezzo with a different emotional result, Paterson’s high voice was convincing.
‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht…’ was also famously set, perhaps more famously, by Tchaikovsky and known in English as ‘None but the lonely heart’: the essence of longing – Sehnsucht, which I reflected on in my review of Saturday evening’s concert. Slender, pale, and with a tender though penetrating voice, she expressed the sentiment beautifully. And Goethe would have loved the singing of the third song, ‘So last mich scheinen’, as the music seemed to fit the words so well, both in their melodic shapes and in the way it reflected the poem’s emotion.
Paterson later sang three songs in successions: ‘Am See’, ‘An die Laute’ and ‘Die junge Nonne’.
‘Am See’ should be translated ‘On the lake’: Sea is Das Meer. Not to confuse with the Heine song, ‘Am Meer’ that Richard Greager sang the previous evening.
‘Am See’ responded beautifully to Paterson’s pure, lyrical voice, also exhibiting a resolute edge and holding her last note chillingly, without vibrato. ‘An die Laute’ (to the lute) was also in a swaying triple time, featuring a charming piano part. ‘Die junge Nonne’ is a poignant and dramatic song, with vivid Romantic character that depicts a storm and a chiming bell, clear in the turbulent piano part.
Mezzo Maaike Christie-Beekman both opened and closed the recital: ‘Im Frühling’ at the start and ‘An die Musik’ at the end. Hers is a confident and accomplished voice that probably sits more comfortably with many of Schubert’s songs and these much loved songs offered her a comfortable setting, to be heard to her advantage.
Her second appearance was with the two Sukeika songs, based by Marianne von Willemer on a Persian love story. Though I’ve heard them before, I didn’t remember them. ‘Was bedeutet die Bewegung’ (what does this stirring mean?) starts quietly and weaves a song that slowly makes a strong case for itself. In ‘Ach um deine feuchten Schwingen’ (Ah, I envy your watery wings) a pulsating, repeated note gives the piano a strong presence, as it helps in the depiction of the West wind, echoing the East wind’s portrait in the first song. Shelley wasn’t alone in sensing the Romantic qualities of the winds (His Odd to the West Wind was written in 1819 while these songs were written in 1821: pure coincidence I guess. I can’t think of an East Wind poem in English though). The song seems to accelerate excitedly, suggesting a messenger on an urgent mission.
Maaike’s songs continued with two entitled Life and Art. ‘Im kalten rauben Norden’ (In the cold raw north) from Aus Heliopolis 1 by Mayrhofer, one of Schubert’s closest friends. It reads in English: “In the cold, rough north, I received word of a city – the city of the sun”; in the words of the intelligent programme notes, “the ideals of the Enlightenment reign supreme”.
In the same aesthetic vein, Goethe’s ‘Der Musensohn’ (Son of the muses), Christie-Beekman captured the feeling of ecstasy, her voice brilliant in racing delivery, with arms wide-spread, almost outpacing Greenfield’s piano in full flight. Here her smiles really meant something!
And she sang the last song in the programme, the beautiful masterpiece ‘An die Musik’, with aching emotion.
Jared Holt continues to make fine contributions to Wellington’s music scene. His range of songs here was extensive, starting with the lovely ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ (on the water at sunset), in register quite low and resonant. Then ‘Ganymede’ was another song drawn from Classical mythology, showing how the Romantic movement by no means set itself against Classicism in subject matter, or in fact in form as the ordinary four-line rhyming stanza is generally the shape of choice. Holt caught its monumental character, after the piano had subtly set the scene. And the third of this group, Goethe’s ‘Rastlose Liebe’ (Restless love) revealed a totally different, disturbing quality beginning with ‘Dem Schnee, dem Regen, dem Wind entgegen’ (against snow, rain and wind….); it’s short and dramatic. Early it certainly is, but ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ was written the year before, in 1814 (he was 17) and ‘Der Erlkönig’, ‘Heidenröslein’ and ‘Wanderers Nachtlied’, like ‘Rastlöse Liebe’, in 1815.
Later Holt sang ‘Gondelfahrer’ (The Gondolier), which I didn’t know; it’s in a slow triple rhythm, not quite the rhythm of a barcarolle which is suppose, literally, it really is. It had a mysterious quality, and lay rather high for a baritone, but it didn’t bother Jared. The song whose theme was used for the famous string quartet, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, is not as familiar as one would expect, with its sombre tone, in which the girl resists Death’s blandishments (story obviously echoing ‘Erlkönig’: is this a German ethnic stereotype?). ‘Auf der Bruck’ was Holt’s last song, powerful and urgent, and he seemed to identify confidently with its desperate spirit of pursuit; Greenfield’s piano once again made its indispensable, matchless, apparently untiring contribution.
A wonderful penultimate piece before the calming, quasi-religious ‘An die Musik’.
I remain convinced that if promoters were to present song recitals, carefully composed of enough thrilling masterpieces such as we heard today, the wearisome view that there’s no market for vocal recitals within a chamber music context would be dispelled.