Kent McIntosh, Bianca Andrew with Catherine Norton: German and Swedish songs and Janáček’s remarkable cycle

The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Janáček

Kent McIntosh (New Zealand tenor, resident in Australia), Bianca Andrew (mezzo), Catherine Norton (piano)

And songs by
Wolf: ‘Auf einer Wanderung’
Mahler: ‘Wer had dies Liedlein erdacht?’
Alfvén: ‘Skogen sover’
Sibelius: ‘Flickan kom ifran sin äisklings mote’ and ‘Var det en dröm?’
Kurt Weill: ’It never was you’

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Saturday 19 August, 7:30 pm

The first half of this recital – Lieder – was given to mezzo Bianca Andrew while the Janáček was sung (mainly) by Kent McIntosh.

To devote the song part to Lieder in German and Swedish (and an American-German) was to lend it very comforting variety, and filled the time to an hour. It might have been decided that Janáček could be accompanied by other Czech or Slavonic songs, which could have been interesting, but this programme was very nicely composed.

What was more of a problem was the atmosphere of the venue. There was a sadly small audience; it was a cold, wet evening; lighting was bright and unforgiving, and the combination of rather serious, though in some respects quirky and droll, songs, with the quite unique Diary, labelled a ‘song cycle’ made for an unfamiliar, though in the end, stimulating programme.

Bianca Andrew and pianist Catherine Norton performed the Lieder scrupulously, with great insight.  Hugo Wolf felt a special affinity with Möricke and set 53 of his poems. ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ is typical in its capricious mood shifts reflecting the changing thoughts and reactions of the young man in a new town. Her penetrating, appealing voice remained in perfect balance with the piano.

Mahler’s ‘Wer had dies Liedlein erdacht?’ comes from his collection of settings of the hundreds of folk songs published in the first decade of the 19th century by Arnim and Brentano, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This one is typical of the sometimes bizarre and irrational little tales they tell. The piano begins with a peasantish dance introducing the first care-free moments, then cautious and finally a bit of nonsense, beautifully sung.

The other songs were in Swedish, the first by Hugo Alfvén, best known for his Midsommarvaka, his Swedish Rhapsody. ‘Skogen sover’ is a nocturnal song, clearly influenced by German Lieder, yet distinctive, with a piano part depicting night personifying the poet’s sleeping lover. And two Sibelius songs (almost all he composed were in Swedish, the language his family spoke). In the first, ‘Flickan kom ifran sin äisklings mote’, the piano was even more emotional, even ferocious than the voice which rose to a shrillness that yet remained within the bounds of taste. The line was more legato in ‘Var det en dröm?’over a rippling piano, again in a song that handled moods that shifted from unease to despair and finally ecstasy.

Bianca Andrew’s last song was from Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday: ‘It never was you’, which she has made something of her own. It was a song that continued the theme common in her other songs: the theme of enigmatic love lost and found, doubted and fleetingly attained, and her singing of this elusive number showed why it’s become a signature for her.

Catherine remained at the piano and played an introductory note at which dark-suited Kent McIntosh emerged from behind the audience. Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared is described as having a dramatic character, and it is sometimes staged, costumed, in a simple way, though some directors have gone as far as to simulate sex: thankfully that temptation was resisted. The performance thus had little in the way of alleviating elements that might have shifted audience attention to the story and the narrator’s dilemma rather than demanding so much of the singers, whose every note, inflexion, gesture and movement was the sole focus.

Though McIntosh is essentially a chorus singer (with Opera Australia), he has given a number of song recitals over the years (though I don’t recall an earlier one in New Zealand).

His tackling of the Janáček cycle (it can be compared to Schubert’s two cycles in that it tells a story, but its individual sections are hardly songs in their own right) was a brave undertaking. McIntosh’s tenor voice has colour and intensity and he succeeds generally in the challenge of negotiating the terse language of the Czech poems (though of course, in translation), and musical line creating a credible predicament, the denouement of which, one senses, can only be tragic.

Here and there one felt a loss of narrative flow in the first eight poems, but it’s a welcome respite when the Gypsy girl (Bianca) enters and the story gains through the tension that this encounter injects. It is here where a certain amount of staging might have enlivened the presentation.

A very singular interlude is the Intermezzo, where the singers disappear and the piano alone suggests the impending outcome through music of awful desolation. Similarly, the interjection of three female singers in the balcony to the rear, was highly evocative.

As with so much else of Janáček, this is a singularly unusual work, hard to characterise; though quite short, it succeeds in creating a vivid psychological dilemma, exploring cross-cultural, class and family issues that might normally be the substance of a full opera. Much shorter than Winterreise of course, it traverses comparable emotional territory, though handling a tragic tale of far greater depth and complexity.

It was a brave and largely successful enterprise that deserved a bigger audience.

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