Moving and delightful recital of German Lieder at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Will King (baritone) and Nicholas Kovacek (piano)

Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge (Four serious songs)
Schubert: ‘Frühlingsglaube’; two songs from Die schöne Müllerin: ‘Am Feierabend’ and ‘Der Neugierige’; ‘Nacht und Träume’; ‘An die Musik’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 June, 12:15 pm

Though we missed St Andrew’s lunchtime concert last week celebrating the survival of live music in public places, this was warmly encouraging with a back-to-normal audience, from two graduate students at Victoria University’s School of Music.

The last time I heard Will King was in Eternity Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro in 2017. Though I’d like to hear him again in opera, this recital showed him as a mature and accomplished Lieder singer, and in particular, one who could deal properly with Brahms’s sombre Four Serious Songs.

What is striking about the first of them, ‘Den es gehet dem Menschen’, is the contrast between the uniform seriousness of the voice, often in contrast with agitated, flashing piano accompaniment. It demonstrated the beautifully controlled lyrical voice over a spectacular piano part that evoked a sort of frenzy. That spirit of the second song is very different. ‘Ich wandte mich’ expresses acceptance of death through the singer’s calm delivery, with occasional appropriate gestures, to suggest that Brahms is explaining what he himself clearly finds philosophically compatible in his contemplation of death.

I find it interesting that several great composers who were confessed non-believers (Berlioz, Verdi, Brahms and Fauré) were comfortable taking thoughts from the Bible to deal with a ‘humanist’ point of view. Each composed what are among the greatest and best-known Requiems).

The third song uses words from Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) one of the so-called Apocrypha or books that were removed from the Protestant Bible in recent times. The words contemplate death as felt by one in full possession of his life; and then by one who is old and weak, with nothing more to hope for: ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’.  It could well have been a self-portrait in Brahms’s last year, and the song and the way both singer and pianist delivered a calm and comforting performance, captured its essence.

And the last song is the famous passage from Corinthians I, 13: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’, sung with a clear, humane feeling that would be endorsed by believers and non-believers alike. The four songs are not among Brahms’s most popular perhaps and I may have heard only one previous live performance; but they are universally admired, and need to be more performed.

Unhappily, we can no longer expect to hear music of this kind on our debased Concert Programme.

Five Schubert songs completed the programme, which was a bit shorter than is usual (regrettably). All were among Schubert’s best known and most loved. Uhland’s poem ‘Frühlingsglaube’ (Faith in Spring), gained through the reticence of both performers.

Two songs from Schubert’s wonderful settings of Wilhelm Müller’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin followed: ‘Am Feierabend’ (‘Evening rest’ or ‘After work’) set to happy, hopeful music in triple metre; but when it ends with the miller getting no sign that he is even noticed by the mill-owner’s daughter, the rhythm falters. .

And ‘Der Neugierige’ (The Inquirer), in which the miller, next, asks the brook whether the miller’s daughter loves him, there is again no response. The transition from buoyant hope to despair was deeply felt.

‘Nacht und Träume’ is the setting of a poem by Matthäus Casimir von Collin, brother of the author of the play Egmont for which Beethoven wrote the famous overture. It is one of Schubert’s later songs: deeply moving, a good example of a beautiful setting of a poem of no great distinction but which inspires a great composer to capture its calm and underlying disquiet, never revealed or explained.

And finally one of the most poignant of Schubert’s Lieder: ‘An die Musik’, a setting of a simple, touching poem by Schubert’s friend Franz von Schober. Again, it’s a quiet, intimate, restrained song, addressed as it were to a lover – ‘Music’.

This was a fine recital the honour for which music be shared by singer and accompanist. And it renewed my long-standing feeling that audiences today have too little exposure to the real treasures of classical song – especially Schubert and Schumann. I have always counted myself lucky to have been introduced to this music by two German teachers in the lower and upper 6th form who, remarkably, were music lovers in an otherwise artistically sterile institution, and we listened to and sang (after a fashion) many of the best known Lieder as well as many folk songs. Unfortunately, my German vocabulary remains rather confined to the language of those Romanic poets who inspired their composer friends.

Oh for a series of recitals, including the great cycles by Schubert and Schumann, from resident singers including, naturally, talented students, that would expose the happy few to the real thing.


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