Schumann song programme – solos, duets, quartets – everything admirable except the relentless clapping

Songbook: Schumann in Spain

Imogen Thirlwall (soprano), Jess Segal (mezzo), Declan Cudd (tenor), Daniel O’Connor (baritone), Catherine Norton (piano), Fiona McCabe (piano)

Songs for soloists and ensembles by Robert Schuman

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Wednesday 28 June 2017, 7:30 pm

A single song and two cycles of songs were performed to a small but appreciative audience; it was marvellous to have an all-Schumann concert.  After applause following the first ‘stand-alone’ song, the audience then applauded after virtually every song in the cycles; frustration at this breaking up of the continuity of the cycles showed at times in accompanist Catherine Norton’s body language.

The first song, ‘Der Hidalgo’ was appropriately a love song sung by the baritone, posing as a swashbuckling young Spanish man; appropriate, because it was written on the day in 1840 when the court ruled that Robert could marry Clara Wieck, despite her father’s objections.  Daniel O’Connor sang it very expressively, in excellent German.  His voice was strong, with attractive tone.

I was a little surprised to see that the piano lid was on the long stick, given that the room is not large, and the floor is of polished wood.  However, despite finding it a little too loud in the first song, it did not bother me later – either I adapted, or the pianist did!  However, I did frequently find the singers too loud; they must adapt their volume for each venue in which they are singing.  I began to long for some pianissimo.

The Spanisches Liederspiel  Op. 74 is the first of Robert Schumann’s two song cycles based on Spanish folksongs, and, like the second (Spanisches Liebeslieder, Opus 138), it was drawn from a collection of German translations of Spanish poets by Emanuel Geibel.  Like the second cycle, it combines songs for solo voices with duets and quartets.  Both were written in 1849.  I was not familiar with any of these wonderful songs, and it was great to hear duets and other vocal ensembles, which we very seldom do.

The first cycle began with ‘First meeting’ (I give the titles in English.  The songs were sung in German; English translations were printed in the programme).  It was a lovely duet for the two women.   Their voices were well-matched, and their singing was always together, in impeccable German.  Appropriate, given the song was about a young man by a rosebush, there was a vase of flowers on a small table next to the singers’ seats.

Next was ‘Intermezzo’, a duet for the two men.  Their tone was attractive, and their vowels were beautifully matched, as they demanded the girl come, even through the deep river.

The women returned for a gorgeous duet: ‘Love-sorrow’.    Scores were used by all the singers, but it was a pity that most of the time, heads were buried in them; only Declan Cudd looked up at the audience more than just occasionally.  Next was a song that began as a solo by Imogen Thirlwall: ‘In the night’, and it was here that I began to find the singing a little to loud for the space.  The tenor joined in after being seated at first.  There were several items with this kind of, shall we say, choreography, which was very effective.

After a quartet, Imogen returned to sing ‘Melancholy’.  As throughout the recital with all the singers, the German language was clear and with excellent pronunciation.  Her projection and expression were both fine.  A melodious duet, ‘Message’ from the women followed, then ‘I am loved’ was a very jolly, sprightly offering from the quartet; a change from the character of most of the earlier songs.  Appealing harmony, some of it quite complex, had the singers nevertheless all absolutely spot-on together.

Two gypsy songs completed the set, both entitled ‘Little gypsy song’.  The first was from Daniel O’Connor, who sang very directly and strongly about how he was dragged from his dungeon, but fired the first shot himself.  Jess Segal followed with a quite different character, and a sad ending.  Throughout, Catherine Norton’s accompaniments were splendid.

The second cycle was lighter in tone, even amusing at times.  It began with a piano duet Prelude.  The two pianists proved to be good duettists (a genre I don’t always enjoy) – they were absolutely together, which is not always the case with two pianists accustomed to playing on their own.  All the songs were accompanied in this way, played with impeccable taste, dynamics and musicality.

Imogen Thirlwall gave a good rendition of ‘Deep within my heart’, in suitably doleful tones.  She was followed by the tenor ‘O how lovely the maiden is’, sung forcefully with excellent expression of the words, for example ‘Tell me, proud knight, you who walk in shining armour’ and ‘Tell me, shepherd lad, you who tend your flock… whether the meadows, or even the mountains could be as beautiful’.

The women sang ‘Cover me with flowers’.  The poem talks about death and the grave; surely some pianissimo would have been appropriate here?

‘Flood-rich Ebro’ (river) was sung by the baritone; one could hear the river bubbling by, in the accompaniment.  This was followed by a piano duet ‘Intermezzo’, which had a lively, bouncy character in the first part, then a quieter, more thoughtful last section.

Declan Cudd’s singing of ‘Alas, how angry the girl is!’ was delightful; he expressed the words in an innocent , piquant manner, which he conveyed well, by looking frequently at the audience.  ‘High, high are the mountains’ was Jess Segal’s next contribution, then the men sang ‘Blue eyes the girl has’ (though I prefer the translation ‘maiden’).  This slightly mocking song was sung with masterful timing.

Finally, there was a very effective quartet ‘Dark radiance’, that portrayed the opposing emotions of love, ‘peace and war within a single heart’.  It made a thematically appropriate end to the cycle, and the recital, which was pleasantly out-of-the-ordinary.

It was pleasing to have a programme printed in a large enough typeface to be read easily, and it was planned so that there was no need to turn pages during individual songs.  It would have been enhanced by a few programme notes.


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