Now that Melbourne is in Stage 4 lockdown and Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is no longer able to transmit concerts performed in the Athenaeum Theatre, interstate and overseas venues have become crucial platforms for Australian musicians seeking to earn money and share their artistry.
Almost all states have provided venues, most notably the University of New South Wales, and there have been concerts broadcast from Berlin and London. Siobhan Stagg’s recital in Berlin set a formidable benchmark as to what can be achieved in terms of artistic and social collaboration. In addition to a ravishing recital of French and Australian music, we had the opportunity to meet and be charmed by the Australian Ambassador to Germany – Berlin, Her Excellency, Ms Lynette Wood. A fine pianist in Kunal Lahiry, imaginative camera work and a full set of the sung texts completed a supremely satisfying experience.
The recital given by four other outstanding “Australian” singers was a very different matter. Billed as “Stars of Covent Garden” and living up to that claim, they deserved more than the impersonal treatment they were given. And so were those who purchased tickets. Not that anybody would have felt let down by the quality of the singing. Sopranos Kiandra Howarth and Lauren Fagan, and tenors Filipe Manu and Samuel Sakker all sang with passionate artistry and every Australian (and Kiwi) witnessing their performances would have felt enormously proud of them.
Program choices enabled them to display their gifts for various languages and styles. Songs by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Bellini, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Poulenc and Respighi were sung in their original language, beside songs in English by Douglas Lilburn, Vaughan-Williams and Ernest Charles. Unlike Berlin Soirée, there were no items by female composers or, perhaps more importantly given the context, by Australian composers. I suppose we Aussies tend to conveniently adopt New Zealanders as our own, so Lilburn could squeeze in. As a composer responsible for establishing a tradition of New Zealand composition, his Holiday Piece was a welcome inclusion – and an ideal choice for Kiwi, Filipe Manu. American composers found a representative in Ernest Charles. Again, the choice of song in itself was not an issue – his most famous song, When I Have Sung My Song, was an appropriate way to end the recital. Sakker’s rich tenor and expressive musicality imbued it with a feeling of nostalgia that would have been especially poignant for fans of the late, great Elizabeth Connell. Still, it was a pity the recital ended as abruptly as it began, due to overall transmission presentation.
George Brandis has been Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom since 2018, but the only glimpse we saw of him was an introductory photo accompanying a message of welcome that we hardly had a chance to read. Between items, we had photos, sometimes repeated, of external and internal images of Australia House – the red London bus on the initial image emphasising where we were. After each of these, it was a matter of on with the next item as pianist Sergey Rybin faced a fresh array of sheets of music spread across the piano. Not one syllable was spoken. Although the camera sometimes filmed the singers from the front – thankfully, the final item was one instance – the camera vantage point was generally towards the side, almost as though we were watching from the wings. It beggars belief that all distancing aspects of this pre-recorded recital were due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It is to the singers’ great credit that they were able to compensate for these factors as well as they did. We might have wondered at the absence of lower voices, but there was no lack of colour on offer. Kiandra Howarth’s clear, bright soprano, with its satin smooth pianissimo top notes, was a joy. From Debussy’s Apparition, which opened the recital, through Liszt’s Die Lorelei, Strauss’s Ich trage meine Minne to the penultimate item Crepusculo (Deità Silvane no. 5) she demonstrated an extraordinary talent for creating atmosphere.
Lauren Fagan’s voice is of a darker hue. Warm, even tone and passion characterised her performance of Grieg’s Zur Rosenheit and Ein Traum, as well as two songs by Poulenc, and she brought considerable sensuous allure to Rachmaninoff’s Pied Piper and A Dream (Sleep op. 38 no 5).
Similarly, the two tenors displayed markedly different timbres. Manu’s more Italianate production was eminently suited to Bellini’s La Ricordanza while Sakker’s powerful, rich tones animated Tchaikovsky’s Romantic melancholy.
Along with many other devotees of classical singing, I can’t wait to hear these four wonderful young artists in person once again – or even virtually.
Photo: Sam Sakker, Lauren Fagan, Filipe Manu, Kiandra Howarth and Sergey Rybin. Photo supplied.
Heather Leviston reviewed “London – Stars of Covent Garden in Recital” presented via Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on August 4, 2020.