Adventurous recital programme, outstandingly performed by Claron McFadden and Alexander Melnikov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Claron McFadden (soprano), Alexander Melnikov (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 28.4.2023. (MB)

Claron McFadden © Erik de Jong

Cage – Aria
Prokofiev – Five Melodies, Op.35
Berio – Sequenza II
Berberian – Stripsody
Knussen – Whitman Settings, Op.25
Schnittke – Improvisation and Fugue
Schulhoff – Sonata Erotica
Crumb – Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises

The Wigmore Hall has witnessed an extraordinary number of first-class song recitals over the years; a good few will even have taken place over the past year. This outstanding recital from Claron McFadden and Alexander Melnikov could hold its head high in comparison with any of them. Taking us from Cage to Crumb, via a fascinating route as coherent as it was replete with surprises, it was a model of programming as well as performance. If it were a pity that more listeners did not join the audience, those who did received a rare treat. I do not think I had previously heard any of the pieces previously in concert, with the exception of the Berio Sequenza and Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, albeit the latter in their more familiar, later version for violin and piano. We all love Schubert, but on this occasion he could readily wait until another evening.

Cage’s 1958 Aria made for a splendid overture, one of a number of pieces closely associated with Cathy Berberian, in this case dedicated to her. It presented a riotous yet ordered – if only in the moment – collage of languages, techniques, styles, delivery, and so much more: from operatic coloratura to a sneeze, arias becoming Aria. My companion aptly likened it to a New York streetscape from a little while ago, in which one might see and hear various characters contributing to this greater whole in near simultaneity. Indeterminacy, after all, is not arbitrary.

It was fascinating to hear Prokofiev’s Five Melodies as vocalise (with piano) rather than for violin, to hear the voice – and McFadden’s voice in particular – as an instrument without words, let alone ‘expressing’ them. This may have been a quieter, even more classical radicalism than some of the avant-gardism on offer, but it was certainly not the least, nor the least durable. An almost post-impressionist delivery from both McFadden and Melnikov led us into and through much of the first song, magical melody and harmony (that utterly characteristic ‘side-slipping’ close!) enthralling us here and beyond. The second soared further, higher, also opening up a world of differences in vocal delivery, a striking shift from vowel to consonant a case in point. The third emerged as Prokofiev’s heir to Stravinsky’s Rossignol, already peering into the Cinderella-like future. Melnikov’s piano interjections in the fourth were perfectly judged, both to disrupt and yet also ultimately to confirm its general, yet never generalised, lilt. A beautifully haunting fifth song took us to a thrilling climax before subsiding. We had been on quite a journey, guided with expert judgement.

Berio’s second Sequenza and Berberian’s own Stripsody made for a fine pair. The liminal zone in which the audience adjusted to the fact that the former had in fact already begun immediately called into question and enhanced much about our experience. A dizzying array of sounds and techniques were constructed as and into performance. If it is difficult not to experience either ‘theatrically’ – and why would one try? – they were certainly musical experiences too, form apparently created before our ears yet no less real for that. Literal breast-beating with which the latter piece began paved the way for material ranging from that world of Tarzan, necessarily a very different experience with a different artist from Berberian to Monteverdi and The Beatles, to squeaking and sirens. A ticket to ride indeed.

Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings song-cycle for Lucy Shelton might have sounded a little conventional in such company, but its renewal of a relatively traditional genre seemed anything but, given such compelling, at times well-nigh overwhelming performances from McFadden and Melnikov. One heard and felt the construction of each song, harmonically in its serial processes as well as overall shape and form. Melnikov’s piano virtuosity took us to a realm some place after Ravel, in ‘The Dalliance of the Eagles’ even post-‘Scarbo’. McFadden’s way with the words had us experience, seemingly at first- rather than second-hand, how they gave birth to Knussen’s score, how the two had become inextricably interlinked. Vividly communicative in words and music, these were exemplary performances. ‘I am the Poem of Earth,’ McFadden sang in the closing ‘Voice of the Rain’, yet she and her partner seemed equally to be the poem of the skies, of the depths, of the elements.

Melnikov had a solo spot to open the second half. Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue, a later yet not late Soviet work (1965), was stark, declamatory, again laying musical processes bare, whilst also permitting them at time to evaporate before our ears. Polystylism might theoretically lie in the future, yet aspects at least of jazz seemed at times but a stone’s throw away. Schulhoff’s Dadaist Sonata erotica made for a contrast in every way, a definitely German eroticism on show as music emerged from sex and, perhaps, vice versa. The joke did not outstay its welcome, at least not here.

Finally, at least so far as programmed works were concerned, we heard Crumb’s Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises, Melnikov’s prepared piano contributions as striking, not least in the opening and closing approaches to the world of the sitar, as McFadden’s evergreen variety and integration of techniques. From the more conventionally – this is highly relative – avant-gardism, albeit perhaps by now (1979) looking back with fondness, of the first Vocalise ‘Summer Sounds’ and ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ to the differently haunting ‘Dark Mother’ and the outright high-dramatic warpath of ‘Approach Strong Deliveress!’ there was another world to be discovered here. The ‘Death Carol’, sung into the piano, bathing in the echoes of its predecessor, and ‘Come lovely and soothing death’, inviting, even seductive, like an expansive slow movement in context, led us to a reprise of the first song both surprising and inevitable. One might say much the same of the two encores, Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom and Debussy’s Beau Soir. It was indeed a fine evening.

Mark Berry

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