It’s Lieder, Jim, But Not As We Know It

New ZealandNew Zealand Ireland, Head, Lilburn, Grieg, Brahms, Greer, Schönberg: Morag Atchison (soprano), Catrin Johnsson (mezzo-soprano), Rachel Fuller (piano), The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand, 3.9.2016. (PSe)

Ireland – Eight Songs for Upper Voices and Piano (extracts)
Michael Head – Songs of the Countryside, Vol. 1 (extracts)
Lilburn – Three Songs
Grieg – Haugtussa, Op.67 (extracts)
John Greer – A Sarah Binks Songbook (extracts)
Schönberg – Brettl-Lieder
Brahms – Four Duets for Soprano and Alto, Op.61

On this occasion I think that, at risk of boring you, I’d better lay my personal cards on the table. With the notable exception of Mahler, whose songs – whether with orchestra or piano – I thoroughly adore, I’ve never been a fan of Lieder. I know, it’s my loss, but the great songs and song-cycles of such as Schubert I respect rather than love, and, if I take them at all, it’s in small doses. The same goes, “with knobs on”, for Lieder recitals; generally, the ones I’ve experienced left me cold, or at best lukewarm, mainly on account of the stiff formality of the proceedings.

I’m sure that you know the sort of thing I mean: singer standing by the pianoforte, one hand holding the score, the other dangling or (more elegantly) resting lightly on a convenient edge of the pianoforte’s woodwork; bodily movement, apart from that necessary for page-turning or giving the other arm a rest, limited to the occasional minimal manual gesture, inclination of the head (upwards or downwards for variety) or shift of footing; emotional expression, other than that inherent in the voice, constrained to no more than the generalities of “sad-ish” or “happy-ish”.

The exceptions have been few, and “better” only in relation to the general run. Small wonder, then, that Lieder is just about the only form that I actually prefer to experience through recordings rather than in the flesh. Happily (for me), tonight all that got a singularly severe – and more than welcome! – knock on the head.

The wielders of the requisite cudgel were soprano Morag Atchison, mezzo-soprano Catrin Johnsson and pianist Rachel Fuller, another top-drawer act coming to us courtesy of Whangarei Music Society and Chamber Music NZ (increasingly, I’m convinced that WMS and CMNZ are “hallmarks of good quality”). The three first came together when they were students at the Royal Academy of Music, and now, an unspecified number of years down the line, all hold teaching posts at the University of Auckland. Morag and Catrin are soloists in opera, concerts and recitals; Morag is also a member of the chamber choir, Voices NZ. Rachel, a former student of Deidre Irons, is a vocal coach, accompanist and répétiteur (or should that be “répétiteuse”?), whose considerable experience spans the full range of vocal disciplines.

Their professed collective aim – “to ensure that the art of the vocal recital is an integral part of 21st century music” – says, with adjustment only of the epoch, no more than would hold good for any self-respecting musicians in any age. Far more significant is the observable fact that, although they are clearly bona fide classical recitalists, they are anything but traditional, hell-bent on invigorating what sceptics like me regard as the stuffy old vocal recital.

Involving no fewer than seven composers, the wide-ranging programme – although a selective conflation of two separate programmes – was very neatly arrayed. The pastoral first half, starting and ending with pairs of duets from Ireland’s Eight Songs for Upper Voices, incorporated items from England, Norway and New Zealand, whilst the second half, similarly bracketed by Brahms’s Four Duets Op.61, led us into the realms of loopy humour and mildly bawdy cabaret.

In the opening duet, Ireland’s In Praise of May, with its fusillades of frolicsome “fa-la-lahs”, Morag and Catrin immediately revealed what a treat was in store. It goes (or should go) without saying that their vocal technique was formidable, their voices rich and vibrant yet – I hasten to add – thankfully far from “wobbly” (excessive vibrato is another of my bugbears!). Rather more remarkably, though, they also showed such an all-encompassing affinity that to describe the qualities of one would, willy-nilly, describe those of the other.

However, the pearl of their talents lay, not in their singing per se, but in the way they put it across. In a nutshell, they didn’t so much sing the songs as act them. Here, I mean “act” in a theatrical rather an operatic sense, because the latter, like the traditional lieder recital, is somewhat stiffly formalised, whereas this was something much freer, or perhaps “natural”, in its expression. It’s quite hard to describe, but the overriding impression is of words, music, tones of voice and accents, facial expressions and bodily movements (along with the full panoply of “body language”), being combined on equal terms to serve the “drama”. It adds up to what you might call a limited, almost certainly accidental but nonetheless very effective implementation of Harry Partch’s concept of corporealism.

Having mentioned music, I must make mention of the “accompanist”. Traditionally, the “correct” balance for the accompanist is “audible, but well behind the (all-important) voice”. So, how was Rachel’s balance? Let’s put it this way: Rachel’s piano played a rôle very similar to Wagner’s orchestra. In her eminently capable hands, the piano became a wordless “voice” transforming solos into duets, and duets into trios. Rachel, it seemed, had carefully considered every phrase, and optimised its capability to underpin and intensify the drama enacted. The result was a far cry from any mere “accompaniment”.

In ‘Foxgloves’ from Head’s Songs of the Countryside, whilst Catrin pulled the heartstrings telling how the foxglove’s bell would “not reveal what peals were rung … a thousand ages gone”, Rachel lent to the bell-sounds a feeling of imagined hearing. ‘Summer Afternoon’, the third of Lilburn’s Three Songs, also has a dreamlike quality – “Through drowsy stillness drifts a sound of moving” – which Morag expressed with whispered wonderment, as Rachel wove around her an almost pointillist web redolent of shimmering summer air. Intriguingly, other than the piano lines of the New Zealander being faintly tinged with a sense of isolation that was absent from those of the Englishman, these antipodal songs evoked very similar emotions.

For me, the programme’s highlights were the two G’s – songs from Grieg’s Haugtussa, Op.67 and Greer’s A Sarah Binks Songbook. In their different ways, both were striking for their breadth and depth of characterisation. Haugtussa is a love-stricken young cow-girl who is abandoned by her lover. Catrin started with ‘Ku-lokk’ (Cow Call), which is not of Op.67, but often used as a scene-setter. Singing from the gallery (which gives access to first-floor rooms behind and to the sides of the recital hall), she “called across the valley” as she walked round to one side, timing it just right to regain centre-stage as the piano postlude ended – a very effective idea! In ‘Blåbär Li’ (Blueberry Field) and ‘Killingdans’ (Kidling’s Dance) Catrin brimmed, body and soul, with girlish delight at Nature’s bounty, Finally, in ‘Ved Gjaetle Bekken’ (At the Brook), enshrouded by the softly rippling piano she became the love-lorn girl, slowly sinking into heartbroken despondency.

The Canadian Paul Hiebert’s “faux bio”, Sarah Binks, is a satire on literary pretension, whose eponymous heroine is as irrepressible as her poetry is “awful” (ironically, the book had an “April Fool” effect on numerous literary critics, who solemnly took Sarah to task for her appalling translations of Heine!). Taking her selections of John Greer’s A Sarah Binks Songbook very seriously indeed, Morag gave a highly active, wonderfully evocative – not to mention amusing – impersonation of “the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan”. She hammed up Reflections while Translating Heine sensationally, through subtly exaggerated vocal inflections, facial expressions and gestures, with some passing nods at a Canadian accent thrown in for good measure. Heck, even the piano hammed it up!

A big, beefy piano introduction prepared the way for a valse serenata entitled ‘Hi, Sooky, Ho, Sooky’, effectively an ode to a porcine quadruped, with whose bizarre narrative (e.g. “hiding in the turnips with a cricket in my ear”) Morag had – dare I say? – a field day. ‘Elegy to a Calf’ was a generously overcooked lamento pastorello, which Morag delivered with such searing intensity that I suspected her wracked sobbing into a hankie must have been genuine. If so, she recovered in time for her and Rachel to combine in a bright, brassy, “elbows out” ‘Square Dance’.

Morag and Catrin shared Schönberg’s Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs) which, with their heady mixture of languor, sauciness, strutting, swinging and swaying, chromatic lurches, and “nudge-nudge” naughtiness, provided plenty of grist to the mill of their style. Enjoyable as that was, the last word fell to the recital’s final song, ‘Die Schwestern’ from Brahms’s Four Duets, Op.61. Surely, this could have been the prototype for Irving Berlin’s ‘Sisters’ (“there were never such devoted sisters”).

Of course, Catrin and Morag didn’t just sing, but radiated the parts of two sisters, whose harmonious co-existence is sundered when they fall for the same man. During the final line, “And now this ditty is over!” they slowly turned to face one another, each wearing the same fearfully implacable expression (it’s probably as well that there wasn’t another verse). Thus, an encore apart, ended the ideal Lieder recital for those who think they don’t like Lieder recitals – and, for that matter, for those who do like Lieder recitals.

Paul Serotsky

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