Charming recital of French and English songs by Rhona Fraser and Richard Mapp at Lower Hutt

Rhona Fraser (soprano) with Richard Mapp (piano)

Songs by Fauré, Debussy and Duparc; two by Quilter and two by Trad. arranged Britten

St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 31 August, 12:15 pm

Rhona Fraser relaxed after the strenuous weeks of management and production of her opera at Days Bay over the weekend (Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi) by tackling a ¾ hour recital of varied and engaging songs in the generous and kind acoustic of St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt.

Though the opera had not, this time, involved her in a singing role, this recital gave us some reassurance that her voice is in excellent shape, and ready for involvement in another production perhaps next summer.

Nine were French and four in English. Most were somewhat familiar, and Rhona introduced each with a few words about the poem and/or the setting. And Richard Mapp’s lovely airy introduction to Fauré’s Clair de lune (Verlaine’s poem), where Rhona’s voice captured the calm moonlit atmosphere with pianissimo singing, presaged the discreet and supportive accompaniment that Richard would provide to all the songs.

Another Verlaine poem was En sourdine, a potted translation of which Rhona offered: reflecting nostalgically on a muted, twilit, half-perceived world.

Verlaine’s C’est l’exstase, in Debussy’s setting, though dealing with a world of similar, veiled imagery, seemed to create a more sturdy, strongly imaginative sound world, with the piano and voice reaching taxing heights with a bell-like quality.

And Leconte de Lisle’s Nell, as well as settings of less familiar poets: Après un rêve and Notre amour, mainly evoking misty, nostalgic, regret and longing, all found sympathy through Fauré’s music. Though Rhona’s voice might be more associated with the lyrical and dramatic areas of music, here she revealed a romantic sensibility, capturing a dim, fugitive world, often dealing with lost love.

Debussy’s Apparition, set to Mallarmé’s ethereal poem, also made demands at the top of the soprano’s range, though her ability to sing softly in that register was conspicuously sensitive; it captured the touching moment of the poet’s first kiss with such specific images as cobblestones, light in her hair, and ‘la fée au chapeau de clarté’. Throughout the song, the piano accompaniment is vividly specific.

The last of the French songs were a couple of Duparc’s small though exquisite repertoire. Baudelaire’s L’invitation au voyage is one of the best loved French melodies, particularly seductive, with more concrete imagery and a piano part that provides it with complementary emotion. However, Duparc’s Chanson triste, a poem by the little known Henri Cazalis, took us back to the more misty, evanescent poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé,

The difference in tone between the French and English songs of comparable periods was striking. Quilter has a warm melodic vein, far from the ethereal character of the French symbolist settings. A more overtly conversational and unambiguous character that I suppose reflects the deep differences between the two languages and the poetry inspired by each.

Tennyson’s Now sleeps the crimson petal has been set by several composers; Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy  by Quilter and Delius. Voice and piano were beautifully integrated in both songs, flowing rhythms, regular meters, and conventional melodies, suggesting a more literal, perhaps concrete view of the emotional aspects of life.

Finally there were two arrangements by Britten of folk songs, The Ash Grove and Oh no John no; the latter one hears occasionally, but I don’t believe I’ve heard The Ash Grove since I was in Standard 5 (Year 7) when we had a teaching headmaster who led us in singing with his violin. I loved the song and still do. Rhona Fraser and Richard Mapp gave charming, idiomatic, affectionate performances of them.

So it was a happy recital. I was sorry not to see a bigger audience; the fine weather might have explained that, or it might have been used in the opposite sense. However, I hope soprano and pianist can be induced to play again at lunchtime concerts in Wellington or the Hutt Valley.



Maaike Christie-Beekman with Rachel Thomson in admirable song recital

Wednesday Lunchtime Concerts

Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo-soprano) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

Debussy: Trois Chansons de Bilitis
Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs
Poulenc: Banalités

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 31 August 2016, 12.15pm

A recital entirely of song-cycles is perhaps a little unusual, but it made for a very satisfying concert.  Maaike Christie-Beekman introduced each in a lively and informative way, giving a summary of the words of each song.  Even though she was not using a microphone, most of what she said could be heard clearly.

The Debussy cycle used poems by Pierre Louÿs, which the latter claimed were translations of the Greek, but were in fact his own work, based on Greek styles and in some cases, sources.  The first, ‘La flûte de Pan’, was dreamy in character, with the enchanting flute written into both voice and piano parts in unmistakable French style.  It was a gorgeous song, sung by a gorgeous voice, with its very expressive, beautifully controlled range of dynamics.  ‘La Chevelure’ (head of hair), the second song, was livelier, with the French language pronounced with clarity.

The third, ‘Le tombeau des Naiades’ became quite excited, but ended in a quiet, contemplative mood.  The piano was always sympathetic and eloquent.

The performers turned next to the English language and Samuel Barber.  The poems were translations of Irish poems written from the 8th to the 13th centuries, and translated by W.H. Auden and others.  Most had religious themes, starting with a spiky ‘At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory’.  Here again, in English, Christie-Beekman’s words were for the most part very clear.  ‘Church Bell at Night’ was much more mellow, like the bell.  ‘St. Ita’s Vision’ followed.  I had never heard of this Irish saint, but apparently she lived a virginal life in the fifth century.  The song began in declamatory fashion, and then flowed into euphoria.

By contrast, ‘A Heavenly Banquet’ sounded like a very a jolly party. ‘The Crucifixion’ focused on the drama and pain, expressing grief.  ‘Sea-Snatch’ was fast and furious, like the action of a stormy sea, while the brief ‘Promiscuity’ was angular, questioning whether someone was sleeping alone.  ‘The Monk and his Cat’ contained delightful meows and other feline features, particularly in the lovely frisky accompaniment.  ‘The Praises of God’ was also short – and powerful.  Finally, ‘The Desire for Hermitage’ was solemn and flowing.  The sustained notes were beautiful.  All were characterised, and sung with appropriate feeling and clarity.

Banalités is Poulenc’s setting of poems by Guillaume Apollinaire (real name Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris Kostrowitzky); this was the last in the tri-cycle.  Its opening number was ‘Chanson d’Orkenise’.  Not the Orkney Islands, but a village in France.  It was a fast, spirited song in a set all about love and heartbreak (but banal?).  The second , ‘Hôtel’, was more thoughtful, with a lazy mood.  The poem was about a young man who just wanted to stay in his room and smoke.  ‘Fagnes de Wallonie’ concerned a wander through the woods in Wallonie in Belgium – but sounded more like a quick trot.

‘Voyage à Paris’ was described by Christie-Beekman as ‘Carmenesque’.  It began with decisive chords from the piano, and the words confidently described ‘gay Paree’.  Finally, ‘Sanglots’ (sobs).  It was quieter and more introspective, but developed dramatically, having a sublime ending.

The singer conveyed lovely tone throughout a wide tessitura.  All the songs were sung in a thoroughly accomplished and comfortable manner.  Moreover, Christie-Beekman gave a lesson in fine presentation.