Wellington vocal trio delights its Whanganui audience with a “charmer” of a programme…..

Wanganui Music Society presents:
A Concert of Part-Songs
Lesley Graham (soprano),  Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano), Roger Wilson (baritone)
Phillipa Safey (piano)

St.Paul’s Hall, Cooks St., Whanganui

Sunday 8th November 2020

This delightful concert was the second of three concerts I was scheduled to attend and review over three consecutive days – and now, looking back at the three events while writing the notices for this second one , I’m suddenly reminded of Franz Liszt’s description of the Allegretto movement in the middle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, commonly nicknamed the “Moonlight” Sonata. Liszt called the movement “a flower between two abysses”, which is something of how I feel about this particular concert in relation to the other two on either side of it. It was, in fact an absolute joy to attend, as far as I could discern, giving pleasure to all, participants, organisers and audience alike.

It’s not that the other two concerts weren’t enjoyable in their different ways, with each of them achieving great things in providing their respective audiences with plenty of excitement and deep satisfaction. But this one’s pleasures were singular in that there was a beguiling ease, a sunniness of disposition, a joyful relaxation in the music-making which reflected the programme’s delight in simple pleasures of life and love. True, the programme’s second half charted more varied emotional territory, with the four Mozart Nocturnes for vocal trio dwelling on love’s pangs as much as its bliss – and the real “elephant in the room” which somewhat counters the effusive tone of my warblings above, was Carl Loewe’s setting of the grisly Scottish ballad “Edward” – here, put across by Roger Wilson and Phillipa Safey with plenty of menace, growing horror and blood-curdling relish, the singer’s Caledonian inflexions convincingly adding to the impact of the performance!

The concert was performed in a lovely space, a hall adjoining the magnificent St.Paul’s/St.Mark’s Church in Cooks St. – the hall afforded a clear and responsive acoustic, enabling listeners to enjoy the finely-modulated balances between the three voices themselves and with the piano. Even sitting at the back of the four-fifths-filled hall, I could clearly hear each of the contributions of the individual singers, with the piano a judiciously-balanced partner.

These balances were immediately apparent in the concert’s opening number, a deliciously presented ”Dashing away with the smoothing iron”, the first of the half’s exploration of English, Irish and Scottish part-song settings – I don’t propose to comment on each individual item, but this one’s performance encapsulated all the virtues of the concert’s first half – the overall lightness of touch from all concerned being the framework of strength that allowed full play to the constantly-shifting impulses of emphasis, light and colour along the way of the song, the freedom and spontaneity of it all totally beguiling! “My gentle Harp” was another to impress, with beautifully stratospheric opening work from soprano Lesley Graham and gently-undulating support from the others.

Teamwork was winningly apparent in “Tis the last rose of summer”, with lovely ensembled singing, the restraint from all adding to the glow of nostalgia, reinforced by the piano’s murmuring tones to gorgeous effect. But not only the gentler, more poetic songs came off well – things like the jolly, rollicking “The De’il’s awa’ wi’ the’ Exciseman”, and the “Scottish snap” evident in “The Dance” were given full rein, both tonally and rhythmically, with the enjoyment of it all readily conveyed to the audience. The defiant “strut” of “The Dance” splendidly energised the music, with Roger Wilson’s “hummed” lines adding a rustic touch to the textures, like a “ground bass”.  Finally, Beethoven’s arrangement of “Charlie is my darling” brought the half to a good-humoured close, the performance replete with rhythmic and dynamic detailings which brought it all to pulsating life.

I hadn’t ever encountered the three Shakespeare duet settings that began the second half, the first (“Ye Spotted Snakes” by Frederick Keel) again featuring some beautifully-negotiated “snow-capped” vocal work from Lesley Graham, supported most ably by mezzo Linden Loader, with the concluding reiterations of “lullaby” from the two so very dream-like and ethereal. In the first of Vaughan Williams’ two settings (“It was a lover and his lass”) the composer’s gentle major/minor alternations expressed something so elusively English about the sounds, while the third (“Fear no more the heat o’ sun” from “Cymbeline”) gave each singer solo lines before the concluding “Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust” beguilingly blended the two voices. This was something of a “find” for me for which I was so grateful, both music-and performance-wise.

I’ve already waxed lyrical regarding Roger Wilson’s splendidly evocative and theatrical performance of Loewe’s setting of the gruesome “Edward”. In order to minimise the possibility of nightmare-ridden sleep that night for hapless audience members after being exposed to such ghastly happenings, the musicians finished the afternoon’s concert with some rather more ingratiating sounds which those more susceptible to such things might well have put to good use to “paper over the horrors”!  For whatever reason, we all welcomed this set of four Mozart “Nocturnes”, again all new to me, and perhaps all the more delightful for it!

I loved the comment in the programme notes regarding the texts of these songs – “The rather stylised Italian poems, possibly by Metastasio were translated into equally inconsequential German” – (Pietro Metastasio 1698-1782 was the most famous opera librettist of his time but whose formulaic style of writing soon became out-dated). Mozart’s music transcended the somewhat high-flown, idealised sentiments of the verses, inspiring the quartet of musicians to give finely-honed, exquisitely gradated performances, my notes while listening replicating phrases like “beautifully balanced”, “perfectly focused”, “finely poised” and “deliciously turned” – altogether, a most mellifluous ending to a satisfying and entertaining programme.

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