Wide-ranging and imaginative song recital at Waikanae: Mellaerts and Baillieu

Waikanae Music Society
Julien van Mellaerts (baritone) and James Baillieu (piano) Schubert: song selection

Five Schubert songs
Schumann: Dichterliebe song cycle Op 48
Gareth Farr: Ornithological Anecdotes
Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel
Ballads and legends by Gershwin, Manning Sherwin and Cole Porter

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 14 April, 2:30 pm

The Waikanae Music society had taken this recital from Chamber Music New Zealand’s associate society series. It was about the last of a ten-concert tour around the country.

It was a courageous step since, for many years – decades? – there has been a belief that audiences avoid song recitals; the same belief has been cultivated about piano recitals. There is not a huge amount of evidence for either display of timidity.

This past week I’ve been to a well-supported piano recital at Upper Hutt and this song recital at Waikanae. I’d guess there were around 300 at Waikanae.

Julien van Mellaerts took a degree at Otago University and studied further at the Royal College of Music, London. In the programme notes, neither date or place of birth or education of Baillieu, were mentioned. His biographical notes were restricted to references to his competition successes: British, apart from Das Lied International Song Competition, which not even his own website tells me, is in Heidelberg. The shyness about background details confined to ritual listings of prestigious performance venues and distinguished musical partners, is virtually universal in the hand-outs from artists’ managements.

Nevertheless, both displayed great musical accomplishment and polish.

They began with five songs by Schubert: Seligkeit, Der Musensohn, Der Wanderer an den Mond, Prometheus and Rastlose Liebe (three of them by Goethe). Mellaerts handled the challenge of projecting the sense of each poem without costume, props or staging very well: after mastering the music and words, it’s one of the solo recitalist’s hardest tasks. One had to admire his efforts. All but one were sung with what I felt were keenly observed vocal and physical gestures, the voice and manner expressing joy, peacefulness, capturing very well the meaning and emotions of each poem. The exception was well-known Der Musensohn which they took at a speed that seemed mistaken: that is to say, I suppose, not the way I have heard it sung by other singers. Goethe’s Prometheus is a sort of narrative poem which Schubert treats rather like an operatic recitative: it was a harder proposition.

The centre-piece, no doubt, was Schumann’s great song cycle, Dichterliebe, all sixteen drawn from one of Heine’s earliest collections, of 66 poems entitled Lyrische Intermezzo, published in 1823.*

The sixteen settings reflected the violently shifting moods that the lovelorn poet experiences; from the peaceful, Springtime evocation of Im wunderschöne Monat Mai, the anticipatory excitement of Die Rose, die Lilie…, and then the strangely enigmatic Im Rhein, im schöne Strome. Next comes the sudden plunge into realisation/courageous acceptance of his lost love: with perhaps the best known, Ich grolle nicht, where his voice hovers darkly round his empty bravado. It’s curious that Schumann didn’t set the poem that follows Im Rhein in Heine’s collection: it’s Du liebst mich nicht: explicit awareness that she loves him not.

From then on the mood fluctuates between bravery and despair and singer and pianist delivered a convincing series of cries and laments, to end, first with Aus alten Märchen wink es, pleading for redemption through the imagery of the old myths and stories, which he sang in determined optimism, and then, in Die alten bösen Lieder, his evocation of the biggest ever coffin in which to bury his love and pain, and though one is tempted to think he means himself to join his grief in it, life goes on. One of Schumann’s moving post-ludes describes his final grief: he’s saying that only music alone, without words, can express some human conditions.

It’s a wonderful sequence and this was a fine rendering from both artists.

Birds to music
The recital then turned to a most interesting and imaginative new composition: Gareth Farr’s settings of words from Bill Manhire, Ornithological Anecdotes, describing four of New Zealand’s birds, their songs, and their predicament, including the huia which sings: “I lived among you once and now I can’t be found”. They were quirky, touching, firmly urging this generation to repair as far as possible, the carelessness and crimes of past generations. The words, the music, the physical presentation all contributed vividly to an unusual and rather memorable experience.

Songs of Travel
We hear individual songs from Vaughan Williams’s Song of Travel, but I can’t remember a performance of all nine of his settings of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems (the ninth, in fact came to light only about 1960). They are commonly associated with Schubert’s Winterreise: I don’t think very helpfully. As a cycle, if that’s what VW actually intended, they are not as convincing as the great German song cycles, but this warmly studied performance was to be taken seriously. The last song, I have trod the Upward and Downward Slope, emerged impressively, a full-bodied creation that could be felt as an optimistic expression of the value of exploratory effort.

And the recital ended with three carefully chosen songs from musicals: ‘The Lorelei’ from Gershwin’s Pardon My English; then A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, the affecting pre-war song of 1939 that became a hit during the war, and Cole Porter’s droll Tale of the Oyster, which completed a trio of disparate but entertaining numbers. Versatility on display.

The whole was a real delight and it’s to be hoped that Chamber Music New Zealand will seek out other worthy and entertaining song recitalists again.


* Schumann was the son of a Zwickau (south-west of Dresden in Saxony) bookseller, publisher and novelist and was thus brought up surrounded by literature. He  became one of the most literate of music critics, founding his own periodical Die Neue Zeitschrift (Magazine) für Muzik in 1834 which gained widespread circulation. It was natural that he read much of the huge output of poetry inspired by the Romantic movement, in English as well as German. Heine was probably Schumann’s most often set poet. Both poet and composer had been unwilling law students, ten years apart, at various universities, with Göttingen in common.

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