Intelligently constructed programme exquisitely sung by Lisette Wesseling

TGIF lunchtime recitals at the Cathedral
Lisette Wesseling – soprano, with Richard Apperley – organ and Michael Stewart – piano

Music by Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Glanville-Hicks, Finzi and Sondheim

Cathedral of Saint Paul

Friday 25 October, 12:45 pm

The Anglican Cathedral is now running two classes of Friday lunchtime recitals. The monthly organ recitals are ‘Great Music’ (even if they are played on the Choir or the Swell manual) and there are others, just called ‘brief recitals’, which are also often at the organ.

I’ve heard Lisette Wesseling several times over the years, though I seem not to have written reviews of the performances. As well as singing in the Cathedral Choir she has, I imagine among much else, sung solos in Bach’s B Minor Mass and a concert that included both Bach’s Magnificat in D and Jesu meine Freude.

Lisette is blind and you will find material on her website and other websites which also discuss what she feels is a much more troubling burden – stammering. Her degree in psychology (as well as music) no doubt helps to make her comfortable in openly exploring her difficulties and her continuing efforts to deal with the stammering; blindness is an affliction for which there are well understood ways by which a ‘normal’ life can be led. But look at the BSA website (‎), where she writes in answer to the question which is more difficult: “The answer I give usually surprises people: stammering is much more difficult to live with than blindness.”

Last year, at the production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, I was not amused at the depiction of Vašek as a figure of fun, inept and stammering. But that’s how librettist and composer conceive him: what should a director today do with the role? Much like directors’ dilemma with roles like Monostatos who was treated in 1791 by Da Ponte and Mozart very differently from the way he might be today.

Thus she reads both the notation and the words in braille as she sings; though it struck me that with the enhancement of other faculties that blindness develops, her memory would have made reading the score unnecessary.

Here is a bright, accurate, distinctive voice that was demonstrably at home in all the musical style that this short recital covered, from late baroque to Broadway musical. She began with two early 18th century pieces by Vivaldi and Handel. The programme leaflet gave no details of the pieces beyond the bare name of the song or aria.

Both the first pieces were accompanied beautifully by Richard Apperley at the chamber organ. The Vivaldi, the first movement of a sacred motet, Nulla in mundo pax sincera, RV 630 (“In this world there is no honest peace”) is a delightful aria in an almost dancing rhythm, light and high, seeming to be written for her kind of voice, and, as with so much Vivaldi, one is astonished that earlier generations ignored the huge quantity of his music that is so rich in melodic invention.

The same goes for the Handel  aria, Süsser Blumen Abaflocken, one of his German songs (Neun deutsche Arien), HWV204, called in Hyperion’s CD note, “a sensual evocation of the scent of Amber flowers, in which the middle section describing the soul soaring heavenwards bears a resemblance to Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò’ from Giulio Cesare”. Lisette’s high notes truly relished the range she was called on to inhabit, and I loved the cathedral’s long echo here, giving me more of the voice than she was actually producing.

Mozart’s Idomeneo is no doubt more familiar to opera-lovers than to those who may have come across the previous two songs. ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’ (‘Pleasant Zephyrus’), sung by Ilia in Act III. This too revealed a happy, summery atmosphere as Ilia, the daughter of Priam, the defeated King of Troy, sends her love to Idamante, son of Idomeneo the King of Crete. It was yet another song brimming with hope and joy which Lisette obviously relishes and performs in a voice coloured with happiness. The accompaniment here was by Michael Stewart at the piano.

Frühlinsglaube, Schubert’s setting of a harmless lyric by Ludwig Uhland, is also filled with the delights of Spring (‘Faith [or belief] in spring’), one of the best-known, happiest, most guileless songs.  Here her voice floated easily, revealing an instinctive affinity with the Lieder genre.

Next was a song by Gerald Finzi: ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As You Like It. This was perhaps the only song in the programme that suffered a little from the acoustic, calling for faster speed and given more to harmonic variety which a reverberant acoustic tends to muddy.

But it provided a nice link with the next song, in imitative Tudor/Stuart style.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990) was one of Australia’s earliest woman composers (along with Margaret Sutherland and Miriam Hyde) and her music has found its way into the mainstream of Australian music. Her music is accomplished and attractive, demonstrating an approach that owes much more to contemporary European models than to anything that might suggest Australia.  You can find this song on You-Tube: ‘Come Sleep’ is a setting of a poem by playwright John Fletcher (of ‘Beaumont and Fletcher’, and a collaborator with Shakespeare in Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen) and the setting suggests the style of the Tudor/Stuart composers.

Finally, a song from one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular works, Into the Woods, which inter-twines Grimm fairy stories. ‘No one is alone’ presents a comforting message along the obvious lines, at the end of the musical. There’s a gentle swing as the melody moves easily in short phrases which Lisette sings with all the clear unpretentiousness that is Sondheim’s secret.

This series of concerts hasn’t yet taken off in terms of audience support. The Cathedral does not have quite the convenience and welcoming atmosphere that St Andrew’s does.

But we should hope that the attention given to the series over the years by Middle C might eventually persuade Wellingtonians whose Fridays weigh heavily on their spirits that here is the answer.