Medlyn and Greager give rewarding and intelligent recital of early 20th century songs, plus four by Vincent O’Sullivan/Ross Harris

Wednesday Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s

Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano), Richard Greager (tenor), with David Barnard (piano)

Songs by Berg, Ross Harris, Poulenc, Strauss, Puccini and Rachmaninov

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 10 July 2019, 12;15 pm

A song recital by two internationally renowned singers based in Wellington is a significant musical event. The programme was like a snapshot of the music of the first half of the twentieth century across a wide range of countries, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, with a more recent item from New Zealand.

The concert began with Margaret Medlyn singing Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs (1907). These songs were written under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, but also show echoes of Mahler, Wolf, Richard Strauss, and even Debussy. They were sung with understanding. Margaret Medlyn is a commanding singer with a powerful voice. Her beautiful deep register is penetrating and moving. The songs are set to texts by Carl Hauptman, Nikolaus Lenau, Theodore Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Schlaf, Otto Erich Hartleben, and Paul Hohenberg, a mirror of the Austrian literary world in which Berg was immersed. They reflected a great variety of emotions.

Richard Greager sang four short songs by Ross Harris, set to poems by Vincent O’Sullivan. Three of these were about father and son relationship, gentle domestic thoughts, one had a rollicking sea shanty feel. Vincent O’Sullivan and Ross Harris have a close association, and the songs were written for Richard Greager, all very Wellington, very Victoria University, but they were lovely and unpretentious.

This was followed by Poulenc’s Cinq poèmes de Paul Eluard. Poulenc moved in artistic and literary circles and had set the poems of many of his contemporaries to music. These songs are about down-and-outs, a subject that was meaningful in the Paris of the first quarter of the twentieth century. These songs are very much dialogues between voice and piano, and this was demonstrated by the sensitive piano playing of David Barnard responding to the singing of Richard Greager.

Margaret Medlyn then sang three songs by Richard Strauss. The first, ‘Befreit’, is a setting of a poem of Richard Dehmel, and one of Strauss’ most popular songs. The second, ‘Heimliche aufforderung’, the text by John Henry Mackay, was a wedding present to Strauss’s wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna. The third song, ‘Ich trage meine Minne’, ‘I bear my love /Silent with joy’ is one of the many songs that Strauss wrote for his wife. These songs appear to be simple, but they all have the hallmark of the special Richard Strauss sense of harmony and unexpected chords and twists in the melody.

Richard Greager sang three songs by Puccini. Puccini is hardly known for his songs, but he used these as sketches for arias in his operas. Richard Greager’s warm light tenor is well suited to these songs. In the second, ‘Sole e amore’, one can clearly hear ideas later used in La Boheme.

The final bracket of songs, again from Greager, consisted of three songs by Rachmaninov. These are imbued with a sense of nostalgia for the countryside. Though the setting is Russian the melodic line is often more Italian. It is the rich piano accompaniment that makes it characteristically Rachmaninov.

This was an ambitious programme and a rewarding concert. It was notable for the intelligent approach to the music, the clear phrasing and diction of the two singers. David Barnard’s piano playing, his sensitive support of the singers is worth a special mention. With teachers such as these at the New Zealand School of Music, it is not surprising that it turns out so many fine singers. Some of these singers will be performing Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi at the Hannah Playhouse next week.