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.



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