Song Festival in Heat-Wave

SwedenSweden. Sångfest (Song Festival) Vackert, makabert, poetiskt (Beautiful, Macabre, Poetic) 11.7.2014 at Vattnäs, Dalecarlia. (GF)

Sanna Gibbs (soprano), Tobias Westman (tenor), Henning von Schulman (bass), Sofia Wilkman (piano), Henrik Måwe (piano)

En barock föreställning om galen kärlek (A Baroque Performance about Mad Love) 12.7.2014 Magnus Karlberg (counter-tenor), Mime Brinkmann (cello), Jonas Nordberg (theorbo/baroque guitar)

 An uncommonly intense heat-wave invaded Sweden in mid-July and the visitors in the concert barn in Vattnäs gasped and sweated even before the concert started. The gasping continued even during the concert but more because of the singing than the heat.

Of the three young singers Henning von Schulman is the Nestor, if this is an adequate soubriquet for such a young singer, but with his imposing height – he was a successful basketball player – his winning stage-manners and his thunderous voice he tends to dominate wherever he appears. I have hailed him before and he has developed even further, having recently won second prize in the prestigious Wilhelm Stenhammar International Music Competition earlier this year.

Sanna Gibbs, stepping in for an ailing Hanna Husáhr, finished her studies at the University College of Opera in Stockholm this spring and has already made herself a name in both opera and musical, while Tobias Westman is still studying at the same institution. I have written about him earlier as well.

It was also Tobias who opened the concert, the first part of which was almost entirely devoted to songs, mostly Swedish songs at that. Jungfrun under lind by Peterson-Berger is well known, not least through Jussi Björling, who recorded it and often sang it on his recitals. Then followed music very far from the beaten track. Hans Gefors, contemporary Swedish composer who made quite a stir a couple of decades ago with his opera about Queen Christina of Sweden. Rymdstationen (The Space Station), bold, unpredictable, humorous, was a tour de force for Henning von Schulman’s flexible and expressive bass voice. He continued with three songs by Emil Sjögren, one of the finest late-romantic song composers, explicitly written for bass voice. Henning in his introduction complained that the bass on the opera stage mostly is allotted old men or crooks and on the recital platform often has to struggle with too high keys, but these songs were certainly a gift for the deepest male voice.

Also the Ophelia-Lieder by Richard Strauss are not among his most frequently heard songs, but Sanna Gibbs had dug out two of them and sang them with charming simplicity. Then Tobias Westman rounded off the first half with a spirited reading of the old Tauber favourite Dein ist mein ganzes Herz  from Das Land des Lächelns. 

After the interval we were treated to a string of pearls of opera hits, arias mostly but also three duets.

Tobias and Henning executed the Pearl Fishers’ duet, Sanna and Henning both showed their talent for comedy in a hilarious – and extremely well sung – La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni and Sanna and Tobias excelled in the beautiful duet from the last act of La traviata: Parigi, o cara.

One number stood out: Så förändrad han blivit from Sven-Erik Bäck’s 1957 chamber opera Tranfjädrarna. It is good to be reminded of this work, which was a success when it was played at the Blanche Theatre with Margareta Hallin in the central role. Sanna Gibbs’ reading was inward and filled with feeling. She also offered Je veux vivre from Romeo et Juliette with secure coloratura and Ach ich fühl’s, Pamina’s aria from Die Zauberflöte, which I incidentally heard her singing in a concert just a couple of days earlier. She is a lovely singer and actress and seems cut out for a nice career.

Tobias’ Che gelida manina demonstrated that his high C is in order but, more important, that it is possible to obey Puccini’s instructions and sing the final phrases in a diminuendo down to a pianissimo. Such things impress, at least me, more that bawling fortissimos. And even better was his superb reading of Un aura amorosa from Così fan tutte. This was flexible Mozart singing of the highest order. Maybe Mozart is his true forte.

The real show-stealer was however Henning’s Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni. He has been singing Leporello with great success at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen last season and his detailed reading, vocally and visually, was quite overwhelming. Basses seem to mature slowly and reach their zenith when they are fifty. Henning von Schulman seems to have reached his zenith already. May he stay there for decades to come!

The two accompanists were excellent. I have heard Henrik Måwe before and he never disappoints. Sofia Wilkman was a new acquaintance and I look forward to hearing her again too.

One last comment: Göran Eliasson and Anna Larsson, who run the concert barn, really do a superb job in offering young rising stars opportunities to perform in high quality circumstances and giving the audiences opportunities to hear singers we probably will read about from the world stages within a few years.

En barock föreställning om galen kärlek (A Baroque Performance about Mad Love) 12.7.2014
Magnus Karlberg (counter-tenor), Mime Brinkmann (cello), Jonas Nordberg (theorbo/baroque guitar)

The scope of the song festival is wide: modern opera, opera recitals, song recitals, Broadway musical, opera picnic, opera jam and baroque music. Two years ago Maria Forsström and Magnus Karlberg shared the stage in a wholly engrossing concert dealing with the castratos of the 18th century. This year’s baroque outing was also intended to be a duo performance but Maria Keohane fell ill at short notice so Magnus Karlberg had to carry the burden on his own – which he of course did splendidly. And he was in good company. The two instrumentalists Mime Brinkmann and Jonas Nordberg belong to the elite among baroque musicians and they both had solo appearances. Mime opened the proceedings with a Ricercare by Italian 17th century composer Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii (1636 – 1698). Later she played some movements from Bach’s suites in D Minor and C Major, while Jonas played a suit in A Minor by Robert de Visée (ca 1655 – 1732) hardly a household name either. He was a musician at the court of Louis XIV. Baroque concerts are often thrilling insofar as they give opportunities to hear lesser known music.

The vocal items were all from operas by the greatest early masters. Ecco l’altra palude from the first real masterpiece in the genre, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was a good starting point and it was followed by Lucidissima face from what many regard as Cavalli’s greatest opera La Calisto. Magnus Karlberg’s flexible counter-tenor allows him to negotiate all the technical difficulties and also express the feelings inherent in the music. For the finale he had saved two gems from what arguably are the two greatest baroque operas: Monteverdi’s old age L’incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Giulio Cesare – the latter a personal favourite of mine and – as it turned out when we met after the concert – also Magnus Karlberg’s.

But Magnus Karlberg wouldn’t be Magnus Karlberg if he didn’t come up with something completely different and surprising. In the midst of a movement from the D Minor suite by Bach, exquisitely played by Mime Brinkmann, he suddenly entered the stage and interrupted her, banishing her to her dressing-room, whereupon he took over the show and did one of his stand-up acts. His speciality is to perform female actresses, which he does with the utmost elegance. Accompanied by Jonas Nordberg he then did Whitney Houston’s Where do broken hearts go and Barbara Streisand’s Woman in love. These two songs, sung with his ‘male’ voice, felt totally integrated in the baroque surrounding, which proves that epochs, genres and styles can work eminently well together when the music is performed with taste, style and love to the music. Add to this that a portion of humour is never misplaced – even in the most serious programmes.

Göran Forsling

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