Two fine sopranos in rare, varied, Wigmore Hall-quality recital

Songs by Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Korngold, Schubert, Chausson, Delibes, Berlioz and Britten

Georgia Jamieson Emms and Megan Corby (sopranos), Catherine Norton (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 29 June 2016, 12.15pm

Here was a recital that would have hacked it in the Wigmore Hall, London, or in any other suitably-sized venue, for that matter.  It was good to have a programme (mainly) of duets – so rarely heard these days.

The programme began with great panache, in ‘Herbstlied’ and ‘Maiglökchen und die Blümelein’ from Sechs Duette by Mendelssohn.  The voices were well-matched, and Catherine Norton, as always, was a reliable and sympathetic accompanist.  The pronunciation of German was throughout the concert uniformly very good.  The first song began the recital at a very high standard.  Meaningful facial expressions were employed by both singers, and some hand gestures – the latter a little excessively in Corby’s case.

Mendelssohn’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ (On Wings of Song) is a much-loved solo song; the poem is by Heinrich Heine.  Although it has received many arrangements, I do not remember hearing it as a duet before; it was delightful and charming.

The French love-affair with things Spanish in the latter part of the nineteenth century extended to Saint-Saëns writing a song in that language and idiom: ‘El Desdichado’ (Boléro).  Written originally for orchestral accompaniment, it was a sparkling song that I didn’t know.  There was plenty of scope for the voices, the Spanish character was communicated well, but the piano accompaniment especially was magical quicksilver.

A change of mood came with Brahms; ‘Wie Melodien zieht es mir” is a lovely song, but I would have liked more dynamic variety in this contemplative piece, which was a solo presented by Megan Corby.  Georgia Jamieson Emms followed with her solo, which was ‘Schneeglöckchen’ by Korngold.  This was a lovely rendition of an unfamiliar song.  Its style eminently suits this voice.  The singer gave it varied expression and dynamics most attractively.  I felt she was conveying the meaning of each word.

The greatest writer of lieder, Schubert, was represented by the duet ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ a sombre, sad, dramatic song, quite difficult to perform.  The two voices go their separate ways much of the time.  Catherine Norton’s varying dynamics were superb.

Chausson’s  ‘ La Nuit’ and ‘La Réveil’ (Deux Duos) were much more harmonic in character than the Schubert.  The first was interesting and subtle; the singers’ vowels matched beautifully.  The second was enchanting and engaging; the French pronunciation was excellent.

Still in France, we had ‘Les trois oiseaux’ by Delibes and ‘Le Trébuchet’ from Fleurs des Landes by Berlioz.  The former was a mildly humorous song, in separate episodes for the two voices; depicting the dove, the eagle and the vulture, then the voices came together in thrilling conversation, before separate utterances again, but a unified ending.  The story was communicated brilliantly.

Berlioz’s song was even more amusing, about tentative lovers.  A sparkling accompaniment contributed hugely to a delicious duet performance.

Finally, it was almost strange to hear the English language, in another sparkler: ‘Underneath the Abject Willow’, by Benjamin Britten, a setting of words by poet W.H. Auden.

It would have been good to have had the names of the poets whose words inspired these songs printed in the programme, but it was very useful to have translations of the opening lines, and the composers’ dates.  Music scores were used throughout; in Megan Corby’s case, on an iPad.

With these two singers, there was never any question about intonation.  Both intonation and timing were spot on all the time.  To have such splendid accompaniment was a great bonus.

While not as many attended as at some recent St. Andrew’s lunchtime concerts, those who did were delighted with what they heard.


Futuna Chapel and Alliance Française inspire an attractive French women’s choir

‘Beau Soir’: a programme of French and New Zealand music and poems

L’Alliance Française Women’s Choir: Voix de femmes, Janey MacKenzie (piano and voice), Madeleine Dean (poetry reading), Brigid O’Meeghan (cello), Julie Coulson (piano and choir), Marie Brown (conductor)

Futuna Chapel, Karori

Friday 2 November 2012, 6.30pm

O Futuna!  But this concert was not Orff in any sense of the word.  Despite comparatively little publicity that I was aware of, the chapel, its coloured glass radiating beautifully onto the concrete walls as the sun shone intermittently, was full.  The choir of 14 singers (unnamed), and others, gratified the audience with a varied range of music.

A variety of French music was to be expected; the introduction of a couple of New Zealand compositions was an added bonus.

The concert, the choir’s second only since its formation, began with Fauré; first a hymn, Maria, Mater gratiae, which was followed by a short mass: Messe des pêcheurs de Villerville.  This was written, so Marie Brown told us in one of her clear and excellent introductions, with André Messager, Fauré’s friend and former pupil, with whom he collaborated on other works.  They wrote it to raise money for a charitable purpose, while on holiday in 1881.  It appears that there were several versions of this mass, which is titled Messe basse in Grove.  The first version calls for a harmonium, while the last is set for organ accompaniment, without the movements by Messager.  Perhaps the electronic organ in the chapel is not functional; the accompaniment we heard was on digital piano.

The choir made a very good sound and produced a pure tone, but the acoustic at Futuna shows up even slight lapses of intonation, of which there were a number in the hymn; the mass fared better.  The words were very clear and precise – although a little more care is needed in the pronunciation of the back ‘e’, as in ‘Christe eleison’.

There was a beautiful blend of voices, especially in the lower-pitched sections.  Unison sections were unanimous.  The ‘O salutaris’ movement was particularly beautiful, and there was a nice variety of styles between the movements, both in their composition and in how they were performed.

A Baudelaire poem was recited next: Élévation.  The English translation was printed, with that of the other poem, on a separate sheet.  It was read deliciously by Madeleine Dean, who stepped in at very short notice when the original reader became ill.  The translation guided non-speakers of French through beautiful English to the idea of the elevated soul soaring above the sorrows and pollutants of life.

Two Debussy songs followed.  The French words of one and the translations of both were printed in the main programme.  However, 8 point font is really too small to read in the semi-dark; it would have been preferable to have had a full A4 programme, as some Wellington choirs customarily do, rather than half that size, especially when the type of paper used did not show up that size of print well.

The songs are normally solo songs: Beau soir, with words by P. Bourget, and Nuit d’étoiles, words by Banville.  However, they were sung very effectively by the choir,  with perfect intonation.  The ending of the first song, in close harmony, was quite beautiful. Debussy’s use of language is just superb, and the fabulous accompaniments plus the gentle dynamics from the choir demonstrated what a wonderful composer he was.  He knew how to write for choirs, though he is not generally thought of as a choral composer.  The lower voices produced superb tone, while the sopranos were generally good, but occasionally shrill in this acoustic.

Marie Brown said some interesting words about the history of the chapel, then Madeleine Dean read the poem Le cynge by René-François Sully-Prudhomme.  Again, it was a very fine reading, the image of the swan’s characteristics and movements exquisitely described and his environment evoked.  It was appropriately followed by Brigid O’Meeghan playing the very well-known cello solo of the same name from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, accompanied by Julie Coulson.  It was a sonorous and lovely performance.

Berlioz was the next French composer, with two of the gorgeous songs from Nuits d’été: ‘Villanelle’ and ‘Le spectre de la rose’.  I have to confess that, though I have loved these songs for years, I don’t recall previously reading the translated words carefully.  By the prominent French poet Théophile Gautier (the title inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), the poems are full of almost self-indulgent expressions of love.  Janey MacKenzie sang them, accompanied by Julie Coulson.  Although they were Berlioz’s own settings for piano (as opposed to his full orchestra version) I have to say that the digital piano did not provide enough timbre or resonance for these luscious songs.

The second one worked better in this building, being mainly lower in pitch.  The higher notes tended to become shrill here.  Berlioz’s sublime music needs perhaps more sensuous treatment from the singer as well as from the instrument, but nevertheless it was most ably performed.  It was a high note on which to end the French section of the programme.

Now to Nouvelle-Zélande: first, to Craig Utting, in Monument, a setting of a poem by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, about the sort of weather we’ve had over these few days.  The piece began with the choir singing in unison, then dividing into parts.  The music had a grand and surging effect, as befitted a storm, before subsiding to a gentler choral sound, even as we could hear the northerly wind whistling around the chapel, and making its roof creak and groan.

Also about weather, but in a totally different style was Arlen and Koehler’s Stormy Weather.  Its bluesy rhythm and harmonies were amply projected, and the tone at the finish was delectable.

David Childs, formerly a church musician in Nelson and Christchurch but now resident in the United States, blended the New Zealand and French interests of the programme, with his Les Béatitudes.  An effective work, it incorporated interesting choral writing.  The French language was set extremely well.  One could have assumed the composer to be French if the programme had not told us differently.

The final item was John Rutter’s setting of A Gaelic Blessing.  This piece sounded a little less secure than did the rest of the programme, at the beginning, and there were a few less than unanimous endings to phrases towards the end.

Overall, it was a most enjoyable programme presented by very competent performers, who delivered the interesting music and readings with excellent French pronunciation.


Organists and Festival Singers bring Vierne to the fore

The Festival Singers and Wellington Organists Association present:


Festival Singers / Rosemary Russell (director)

Paul Rosoman (organ) / Jonathan Berkahn (organ/piano)

James Adams (tenor) / Linden Loader (contralto)

VIERNE – Messe Solennelle / Suite Bourguignonne (exerpts) for solo piano

Organ works by Vierne, Becker, and Guilmant

Songs by Hahn, Massenet and Faure

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Sunday 9th September 2012

A glance at the programme and the list of performers at the head of this review will give the reader an idea of the range and scope of this undertaking – a fascinating, and, as it turned out, extremely rewarding concert.

Centred firmly around the music of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) the presentation included also organ pieces and songs written by other French composers. To begin with, organist Paul Rosoman seemed to put the foundation-stones of the building to the test with a resounding Praeludium Festivum by Rene Becker (1882-1956), from the composer’s First Organ Sonata, music that in any language would make a truly splendid noise.

It occurred to me that this was the first time I had heard the main organ in Sacred Heart Cathedral played at what sounded pretty much like “full throttle” – it was definitely attention-grabbing stuff, stirring and resplendent. I loved the particularly “grunty” figurations in thirds during the fugue, just before the reprise of the opening of the Prelude – all very physical and engaging.

Vierne’s music then made its first appearance of the afternoon with two works for choir and organ – an Ave Maria and a Tantum Ergo. Both stand-alone works, the first, a prayer to the Virgin Mary, had a beautifully seraphic opening, sensitively handled by organ and sopranos, and then featured the full choir bursting in for the second part of the prayer, the “Sancta Maria”. Then, the Tantum Ergo, a prayer accompanying the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, inspired some finely-crafted singing from all parts of the choir, with the sopranos rising to the occasion at the words “Sensuum defectui” halfway through, and again at “Compar sit laudatio” at the end.

Paul Rosoman again took his turn at the organ, playing this time two of Vierne’s own compositions, both from a set Op.31 containing twenty-four pieces “en style Libre” – I found the first piece “Epitaphe” exuded a strongly Catholic atmosphere, meditative tones, reedy timbres, and harmonies exploring “inner” realms. This was followed by a Berceuse, curiously unrestful –  rather “beefy” for a Lullaby, I thought, to begin with, but then sounding troubled, even angst-ridden, though it seemed as if, again in the best Catholic tradition, rest was eventually achieved at the end of tribulation.

Tenor James Adams was one of two singers who chimed in with heart-warming contributions to this concert, the other being contralto Linden Loader. Songs by Reynaldo Hahn and Jules Massenet were chosen by the tenor, and performed in reverse order to the program listing – so we first got Des Grieux’s heartfelt plea to Manon from Massenet’s eponymous opera, winningly and meltingly floated by the singer, and accompanied sensitively by Jonathan Berkahn’s piano playing. After this we heard the remarkable Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings), written by the thirteen year-old  Reynaldo Hahn. James Adams’ performance of this seemed somewhat inert in effect to begin with, after the radiance the tenor gave the Massenet aria, but the words then seemed to focus more sharply as the song ran its brief but beautiful course. The afternoon’s second singer, contralto Linden Loader, appearing during the second half, brought a rich, velvety voice to two wonderful songs by Gabriel Fauré, the well-known Après un rêve, here lightly and sensitively vocalized and accompanied, and the other, Fleur jetée (Discarded flower), a more dramatic outpouring, singer and pianist relishing the amplitude of Fauré’s writing and putting it across splendidly.

However, for the moment – and keeping a firm focus on the music of Louis Vierne – Jonathan Berkahn returned to the piano to give us two attractive moments from a Suite Bourguignonne, the whole consisting of seven pieces. The “Légende Bourguignonne” owes something to Fauré’s similarly elusive harmonic evocations, not unlike a Barcarolle in effect, with a kind of “rowing” rhythm, here beautifully played, the rather sweet shift into the major suggesting perhaps a journey’s end? Afterwards, a bright and energetic “Aubade” conjured up rolls of pealing bells awakening the new day – we heard a few clangers amid the clamour, but all to great effect, as well as enjoying the piece’s coda, rumbling upwards from the bass and bursting into festive mode once again at the conclusion. Exhilarating!

Rather akin to a musical version of “tag wrestling”, Paul Roseman then took back the reins at the organ console, for a performance of a “Scherzo” from Alexandre Guilmant’s Fifth Organ Sonata (the composer’s dates, 1837-1911). Again the piece immediately caught the ear, an atmospherically “serpentine” kind of opening suggesting some sort of “dans reptilian”, filled with slithering chromaticisms, the creepiness relieved by a charming Trio into which the listener could relax, away from thoughts of “something nasty in the basement”. But a reprise of the opening also brought out a remarkable fugue whose different voicings combined with the Cathedral’s ambient acoustic to suggest the idea of antiphonal forces at play.

An interval allowed us to take stock of all these strands of musical impulse before bringing us still more delights – firstly, two exerpts from a work Pieces de fantasie by Vierne himself, played by Jonathan Berkahn (both organists certainly earned their keep throughout this concert!). To begin with came a graceful, if quirkily-harmonised Sicilienne, its modulations flavorsome, and with lovely chromatic meltdowns in the trio section. Then a lively Intermezzo brought out the composer’s awareness of what sounded like jazz elements, the piece becoming almost circus-act oriented at some points, with frequent pauses for theatrical effect! Incidentally, by way of introducing the item, music director Rosemary Russell had already made the timely point about organ improvisation being akin to what jazz musicians do.

After Linden Loader had given us her two Faure songs, mentioned above, Rosemary Russell brought her choir to the platform for the concert’s “signature item”, Vierne’s Messe Solenelle . Two organists were brought into play, Paul Rosoman upon the Grand Orgue in the choir loft, and Jonathan Berkahn playing the Petit Orgue, the latter placed next to the choir. Throughout the Mass’s unfolding the contrasting effect of these two instruments added colour, resonance and drama. A case in point was the opening “Kyrie Eleison” begun by the men,  with dramatic interpolations from the “Grand Orgue” – and most creditably, the Singers were able to match the organ’s voluminous tones with some full-blooded singing of their own. “Christe eleison” made a sweet-toned, nicely harmonized contrast, throwing the creepily-returning Gothic-like Kyrie into bold relief, the sopranos bravely arching their high notes towards the  Grand Orgue to do battle with its massive tones – spontaneous applause!

The Gloria’s jolly, bouncing opening led to some theatrical exchanges between choir and full organ throughout the “Laudamus te….Benedictus te…..”  sequences, with only a lack of numbers hampering the ability of the men in the choir to float their lines comfortably, though the tenors in particular held on steadfastedly. Full-blooded, committed work by choir and conductor brought out grandeur at “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris” from a plaintive plea at “Qui tolls peccata mundi”, and nicely colored the energy at “Quoniam” with well-registered key-changes with each “Tu solus”, before delivering the “Amens” with much joy and plenty of vigor.

The Sanctus grew nicely from its men-only beginnings, the women’s voices properly ritualizing the “Pleni sunt caeli” and adding joyous energies to the ‘Hosannas”. A plaintive note was struck by the Benedictus, with the organ accompaniments distant and magical, before the Hosannas brought back the festive splendor of it all, the men contributing a ringing “In excelsis” at the end. Finally,the “Agnus Dei” was beautifully realized, sopranos really “owning” their utterances of “Miserere nobis”, and making something enduring out of the composer’s celestial harmonies at “Dona nobis pacem”.

Very great credit to Rosemary Russell, her Festival Singers and her organists, for bringing us closer in spirit to the music and times of a remarkable composer.













French Songs definitely allowed – Alliance Française Wellington

Alliance Française Concours de la Chanson

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A new venture by the Alliance Française Wellington, but intended to be annual, this was a competition for singers in two categories of French song: modern songs in the syles of Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and others, and classical mélodie by nineteenth or twentieth century composers.  A prize of $1000 and two terms’ tuition at the Alliance Française was offered to the winner of each category.  Certificates were awarded to second and third place-getters in each.

Frenchman Franck Monnet, author, composer and performer judged the modern category, and experienced New Zealand singer Catherine Pierard judged the classical song section.  They were assisted by Jean-Georges Vendome from the French Embassy in Wellington. The organiser was Dan Tait-Jamieson, President of Alliance Française Wellington, who received considerable assistance from Jenny Wollerman, fine exponent of French song and singing lecturer at the New Zealand School of Music.

A preliminary round was held on Saturday, 19 June, and six finalists selected for the first category and nine for the second, out of a total of 29 entries. While the styles of singing for the two categories are very different, calling into question the wisdom of having a shared competition, nevertheless quite a number of the singers entered both classes.

The singers introduced their selections themselves – with varying success.  In the first class three singers sang without microphone (Edris, van Mellaerts and Smith) while the remaining three used amplification, and these seemed to score well with the judge, who in his remarks at the end said he thought the microphone gives an intimacy between singer and audience.  While we may question this view, it did allow the technician to increase the sound for one singer whose piano accompaniment was too loud.

Amina Edris opened with a Piaf classic: ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’.  She was accompanied by Catherine Norton.  Her style was good, though (thankfully?) she used less portamento than Piaf.  She was confident, projected well, and her language was good.

Next, Daniela-Rosa Young sang ‘Pour que tu m’aimes encore’ by J-J Goldman, a Céline Dion song.  This was not as affecting as the previous offering, but the French pronunciation was even better.  Her accompanist, Paul Carnegie-Johnson was competent, if a little restrained.

Julien van Mellaerts has a big voice, both speaking and singing.  It was pleasant but not distinguished.  His rendition of ‘Vous qui me passez sans me voir’ by J. Hess was cheerful but lacked variation and imagination.  Much repetition meant that not a lot of language was involved.  Julie Coulson expertly accompanied both him and the next singer.  Julien was awarded second place.

Bianca Andrew used the microphone, and impressed as having put a lot of thought into the way she sang ‘Nantes’ by Barbara, and she gave the best introduction so far.  I thought the song a little low for her, meaning that there was little tone on the lowest notes, but otherwise it was a very touching performance, making full use of the microphone to sing this sad song in an intimate way.  Her style was very French as was her little black dress.  Pronunciation and articulation were first class; my friend and I were pleased that she won, since we had picked her for the prize.

Felicity Smith sang without microphone, the bitter-sweet Piaf song ‘Padam, padam’ by N. Glanzberg, with Catherine Norton the fully supportive accompanist.  This was a good performance – intelligent, and with panache and emotion, despite some breathiness. Her French pronuncation was very good indeed.

The final performer, Wallace Gollan sang with the microphone and accompanist Daniel Hales.  Her language and style were thoroughly French, in ‘La jeune fille aux cheveux blancs by Camille.  She used the words with subtlety.  It was a pity that her accompanist, playing without printed music, was too loud.  The balance improved with some knob-twiddling by the technician.  She was awarded third place.

Other words from the judge of this class were to stress the importance of the lyrics, and to note that he thought the singers really made the songs theirs.

The larger category, Mélodie, began with Daniela-Rosa Young singing ‘Absence’ from Nuits d’Été by Hector Berlioz.  This lush song was sung attractively, but slight flat intonation on the top note, too much gesture, and a less than excellent accompanist spoiled the performance somewhat for me.  The words were well produced and the piece was sung with expression.

Julien van Mellaerts’ ‘Le Mendiant’ by Francis Poulenc was accompanied by Julie Coulson,and was sung in good style after a good spoken introduction, but I found the performance somewhat monotonous.  He was placed second in this class also.

Next was the diminutive Xing Xing, who with Julie Coulson sang ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ by Debussy (not Débussy as in the programme) most feelingly.  She has a lovely soprano voice and her French language was beautifully produced and accented.  Her interpretation had variety.

Bianca Andrew used her voice and her language skills well in ‘Sanglots’ by Poulenc.  With Julie Coulson she created a range of dynamics.  Bianca was the first to tell us who the poet was; in this case, Apollinaire.  She explained that he was one of the Symbolist poets, and that the words did not really make sense.

Amina Edris gave a rather inadequate introduction, but did say the Massenet’s ‘Elégie’ was originally written for cello and piano, and has had many arrangements.  It was therefore a pity not to learn who wrote the words used in this arrangement.  A confident, strong presentation and an attractive voice went into a very dramatic performance.  Catherine Norton accompanied.  She was placed third.

Elitsa Kappatos gave a very strong and confident performance of ‘Psyche’ by E. Paladilhe, accompanied by Catherine Norton.

Bryony Williams was the winner, singing the well-known Duparc song ‘L’invitation au voyage’. A cheerful and confident singer with quite a fruity voice with plenty of volume, she was supported by accompanist Julie Coulson who played for the next singer also.

Frances Moore sang Duparc also: ‘Au pays où se fait la guerre’, the poem being by Gautier.  Her voice production was very good, and she made a dramatic performance of this quite difficult, long song.

Finally, Felicity Smith with Catherine Norton performed Debussy’s ‘Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison’, the composer having also written the words.  The drama was presented well, and the singer made good use of her voice, and her facility in the language.  A slight slip and the breathing were minor factors to mar the performance.

The contest had a very high standard.  My conjecture about the awards in the classical section is that the judge went for carrying voices, which would do well on the operatic stage; there is sadly so little public performance of lieder/mélodie/art song these days that these promising singers cannot expect to base a career around such beautiful words and music.

The singers, especially the winners, are to be congratulated on their presentations and their teachers on the skills they have assisted their students to gain.

St.Andrew’s concert – Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi

Felicity Smith (mezzo-soprano)

Michael Stewart (piano)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The performers were brave to tackle a difficult and unusual work such as this cycle of nine songs, and perhaps it was not only the recent bad weather that deterred some from attending the lunch-time concert.

However, it proved to be an interesting and worthwhile recital.

Messiaen’s songs were written in 1936 for his wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, whose nickname was Mi.  He wrote the words himself, with Biblical influences, and also those of the surrealist poets.  The songs celebrate the sacrament of marriage, and as in the Bible itself, the service of Holy Communion and the metaphysical poets, use marriage as a symbol of the union between Christ and his church.  They are very varied in style, with the first and last drawing on plainchant, while others use impressionist styles; nevertheless, most of the composer’s music is very much uniquely the composer’s own.

The performers both gave full rein to the intensity and contrasting subtlety in the writing.  The words were absolutely clear, as befits a graduate in French, as Felicity Smith is.

The use of the printed score by the singer was quite understandable, given the complexity and variety in both words and music which would make them difficult to memorise, but it did create a barrier to communication with the audience.

The accompaniments were beautifully played by Michael Stewart; technically difficult, they were full of exquisite impressionistic phrases and images.  He was totally ‘in synch’ with and supportive of the singer.

The titles of the songs convey their content quite well: their translations are Thanksgiving; Landscape; The house; Terror; The bride; Your voice; The two warriors; The necklace (Le Collier!); A prayer granted.  In the fourth song, Terror, the performers certainly conveyed the emotion strongly.

Your voice was a quite lovely song, while The two warriors contained very evocative writing. The necklace featured a sublime ending.

Sometimes in the first half (the first four songs) the singer’s sound was rather breathy, and not only between phrases.  This was less so in the second half.  Her voice has a very pleasing quality, and the right kind of tone for French song.

The performers are both to be congratulated on attempting and bringing off this difficult cycle; it was a most accomplished performance, and illuminating to anyone who, like me, was unfamiliar with the songs.

The April Moon over St Andrew’s

Lune d’avril

Songs by Rossini, Debussy, Chausson and Poulenc

Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Jodi Orgias (mezzo soprano), Robyn Jaquiery (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 April 12.15pm

The concert title might have celebrated the season but there was little in the programme, other than the last of Poulenc’s songs, that seemed specific to April either in the northern or southern hemispheres.

However, let us suppose (I don’t know) that the Venetian regatta takes place in April; Rossini’s infectious duet (La regatta veneziana from Les soirées musicales) opened the lunchtime concert to delight a well filled church, with the two rather different voices which, however, blended happily to produce boisterous, rocking rhythms and sparkling tunes; and an accompaniment that relished its showy little rising arpeggios and gondolier-flavoured triple time. They followed with a second duet, La pesca (from the same set), less ebullient but just as charming with its gentle swaying rhythm.

The concert ended with another Rossini duet, from Semiramide – ‘Serbami ognor’. Again in triple time, with nothing radical in terms of harmony, but a brilliant vehicle for the crucial misunderstanding between Queen Semiramide and Arsace (a trouser role for contralto) that the music reflects and the two singers captured excellently.

The pair also sang a couple of duets by Chausson – La nuit (a poem by Théodore de Banville) and Réveil (by Balzac) – in which the two voices seemed a little more exposed. Rossini’s extrovert bravura seemed to bother them less than the finesse demanded for these near-impressionist songs. Here and there were signs of discomfort, lack of perfect focus, but there was far more astute and intelligent interpretation, where, again the two quite distinct voices created a persuasive blend.

Each singer had a solo bracket. Jody Orgias sang four Debussy songs. The first two, ‘C’est l’extase’ and ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, by Verlaine, in Debussy’s collection Ariettes oubliées of 1888; the third and fourth, Romance (poem by Paul Bourget), and Dans le jardin (by Paul Gravolet): all relatively early songs. Her dark, throaty voice, that tends nasal in the upper part, may not be conventionally beautiful, but has the advantage, especially in the way she uses it, of investing songs with character, of drawing attention to their meaning and their emotion. The result, in ‘C’est l’extase’ for example, was not an overtly voluptuous sound perhaps, as from in the mouths of some singers, not ideally legato, yet the sensuousness remained, and an immediacy.

Debussy’s setting of ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ has never seemed to reflect my own feeling about the poem: not sufficiently melancholy, and this performance was no different. Jody sounded comfortable in the Romance, with pianist conspicuously capturing that always important contribution, but did not entirely convince in Dans le jardin which is conversational in tone, rhythmically ambiguous and not perhaps among Debussy’s masterpieces.

Janey MacKenzie’s offering was the Poulenc cycle, La courte paille (The short straw – isn’t it curious that the rather contemporary metaphor existed in 1960?). In the 40 to 60 years since Debussy’s songs, a major French composer has stripped away the mystery, ambiguity, harmonic and rhythmic obscurity of the Debussy era in favour of cleaner, simpler lines and harmonies. She approached the seven songs confidently, at home in the various styles, rhythms, moods, finding their quirky or absurd wit through both her voice and demeanour.

How lucky we are to have such an institution as the free St Andrew’s concerts and musicians prepared to give their time and efforts freely to make them happen!