ALTO Hit the High Notes

New ZealandNew Zealand  Brahms, Bridge, Schumann, Loeffler, Hindemith, Weil: ALTO – Kristin Darragh (mezzo), Julia Joyce (viola), Kirsten Simpson (piano), The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 21.06.2012. (PSe)

Whangarei Music Society recitals engender many feelings. Boredom isn’t one of them. Even in the depths of Northland, far from the madding crowds of New Zealand’s metropolitan music-making, we seem to get our fair share of fascinating fare. Take chamber recitals, for example. Chamber groups are by definition small, but by way of compensation they consequently come in the fabled “57 varieties”.

One such variety is ALTO, the latest from Chamber Music NZ’s capacious stable, and here giving only their second public performance. ALTO is a trio. But, before you say, “Ho, hum,” I should add that this trio intriguingly complements Kirsten Simpson’s piano with Kristin Darragh and Julia Joyce – a mezzo-soprano and a violist!

The fascination lies not so much in these unusual components, but more in both of them being relatively low-pitched and mellow-toned. Again, both “instruments” – the viola especially – normally playing second fiddle to brighter, more penetrating cousins is reason enough to give them some limelight, don’t you think? Whether you think so or not, ALTO evidently do, and on the strength of this showing I’m inclined to go along with them.

I should mention that, although ALTO is a brand-new ensemble, each of its three members is thoroughly experienced as a solo performer.

We got off to a rollicking, if relatively conventional, start with Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder, potently projected by Kristin’s animated, powerfully expressive singing (Being almost entirely ignorant of the German language, I had to wonder, “Expressive of what?”) and Kirsten’s beautifully sprung “gypsy” rhythms.

Bridge’s more romantically introverted Three Songs, composed specifically for these forces, introduced Julia’s viola. Blending with the piano, its lovely, oaken, sexy sound smouldered beneath the richly-intoned vocal lines, in which Kristin, even when ascending aloft or stepping on the gas, kept her vibrato on a commendably tight leash.

I must admit that I have a real soft spot for the viola, and cannot understand why it has been squeezed into insignificance between the violin and the cello (or, for that matter, why “viola-player” jokes far outnumber those at the expense of the players of all other instruments put together!). Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Fairy Tales) for viola and piano provided a further demonstration of the viola’s uniquely delectable character. Buoyed by Kirsten’s circumspect pianism, in livelier music its velvety tone brought body to robust rasping, whilst in gentler passages its velvet took on a veiled quality, making magic of the numerous double-stoppings and portamenti.

In the first of two of Loeffler’s Poèmes pour Voix, Alto et Piano ALTO’s deliciously flexible tempi captured the folksy gigue to an absolute “T”. Kristin’s voice was admirably attuned to the French style and accentuations. In the second, Kirsten’s nimble fingers decorated the vocal line with some sweet arabesques.

With apologies to those who enjoyed it, I personally wouldn’t mind if Hindemith’s Trauermusik were played at my funeral (think about it!). It was written in haste to commemorate the death of King George V, and to my ears the haste shows. Admittedly, it’s very earnest, but is so dull and uninspired as to resist even Julia and Kirsten’s intense advocacy. Hindemith, otherwise a brilliant composer, perhaps ought to have quietly binned this one.

Where Trauermusik did succeed, however, was in maximising the impact of the succeeding item – two songs, Youkali (a.k.a. The Land of Our Desires) and Nanna’s Lied, which exemplify Kurt Weill at his sleaziest. These were droolingly dispatched with the most unladylike relish. Imagine, if you will, Kirsten slouching over a beer-stained pub piano. Imagine Julia, cheroot dangling from her lips, scraping away at a wailing “cabaret” fiddle (though not slithering somewhere off-centre of in-tune). Imagine Kristin, curled erotically around a chair back, eyelids drooping meaningfully, and crooning with consummate decadence. Got that? Well, push your eyeballs back into their sockets, because it didn’t actually look like that. However, the good news is that it sure sounded like it!

After that, I had a bit of trouble concentrating on the finale. Brahms composed his Zwei Gesänge for mezzo, viola and piano in the hope – forlorn, as it turned out – of reconciling the estranged Joseph and Amelie Joachim. The first, showing the viola – descended from the viola d’amore – as well-suited to amorous outpourings, was sung with much passion and tenderness. The second, whose climaxes are perhaps a bit on the strong side for a “sacred lullaby”, was equally impassioned.

Brahms is “stuffy”, is he? Well, I suppose he is, when you compare him with Weill. Which reminds me – ALTO concluded their thoroughly entertaining evening with an encore of Youkali. Now, ladies, I ask you, how much can a mere man be expected to take?


Paul Serotsky