One of Australia’s busiest and most in demand mezzo-sopranos, Sally-Anne Russell, continues to impress with her huge musical energy and achievement, having performed in twenty countries in more than eighty operatic roles, and with all Australian opera companies, she is also admired immensely for her performances in early music and Baroque repertoire. Tonight it was delightful to see her deliver a finely balanced recital of art songs with accomplished pianist, Konrad Olszewski, in a more intimate and elegant setting at the Kelvin Club, Melbourne.
How romantic and warming for winter, were Brahms’ Op 103 Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs). Russell had programmed a menu of eight of these atmospheric, passionate and often intense short pieces, holding the audience totally still and attentive as voice and piano impressed us with consistent clarity, balance and beauty, and polished synchronisation. Russell is blessed with a warm stage presence, and uses her theatrical experience to deeply express both the poetry and the inner soul of her character. Her golden voice is most magical in her soft low register, where deep feeling and sensitivity drew us into Brahms’ world, and we felt a special involvement and connection.
In Lieber Gott, du weisst Russell portrayed a fine lighter side, irreverently framing the text: “Dear God, as long as I live, I’ll think about that first kiss”. In Brauner Bursche she showed her pure honeyed tone and a more active passionate character, sharing the sense of the pure joy of the text: “A swarthy young man leads to the dance”. Roslei dreie in der Reihe evoked charm and delight with bright light staccato and clean crisp articulation from both piano and voice: “It’s not forbidden for the boy to woo the maiden”. But it was in Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn that Russell held us captive with most affective, soft descending phrases, sharing the pain and sorrow of unrequited love most touchingly: “Do not deceive me, do not leave me”.
Our immersion into Brahms’ world continued with two sincere and colourful piano solos, the popular Op 118 Intermezzi 1 & 2. Olszewski delighted the packed venue with his reflective and soulful playing, detailed dynamics, and enhanced soaring melody. Russell brought Brahms back to the stage to open with one of his shortest but most passionate gems: Brahms’ Christmas gift to Clara Schumann, Meine Liebe ist Grun, sung with a poetic, beautifully forward and flowing interpretation. Introducing Von Ewiger Liebe as being “like a mini-opera”, she used her theatrical personality and presence to give us a well-presented dramatic presentation to make it one of the highlights. The audience showed great approval of this complete Brahms’ experience.
How fine was Olszewski as a highly sensitive and supportive accompanist for this extensive program. Two fine concert solos were also added, showing us his high musicianship and technical authority – challenging repertoire played with physical ease and grace. He gave us the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata in Bb minor Op. 35, beautifully expressing an adventurous and satisfying story, and later excited everyone with Concert Etude Op. 40 No. 8 by Nikolai Kapustin (1937 -2020), a work said to need three hands and eight fingers on each hand. This Allegro Assai flew in a fantastic perpetual motion of classical lines with jazz harmonies and rhythmic punctuation. A show-stopping piece.
As the champagne warmed the cosy and intimate Kelvin Club setting, it was time for more Russell to take us to her world of theatre and alluring character songs. Melbourne composer Noel Fidge was present to hear Russell spread her wings to comedy and light opera in his two new songs: My Own Web, showing nostalgic hints of a relaxed jazz ballad, and Shy Blue-Eyed Boy, where Russell excelled in the role of the sexy, flirtatious enchantress, sharing the musical charms of this quirky jazz waltz with an audience who loved her fine stage presence. Loud and rousing applause demanded an encore, with pianist and chanteuse cooking up a creative finale with William Bolcom’s satirical classic Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.
Julie McErlain reviewed the Kelvin Club Recital given by mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell and pianist Konrad Olszewski at The Kelvin Club on June 29, 2023.