Wednesday Lunchtime Concerts
Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo-soprano) and Rachel Thomson (piano)
Debussy: Trois Chansons de Bilitis
Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs
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.