In this concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre Songmakers Australia both traced the lives of queens, heroines and common women and continued their championing of Australian music. Reviewer Heather Leviston was impressed and moved by the performance despite an unwelcome interruption …
At the end of an extremely moving performance of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, pianist Andrea Katz turned to the audience and assured them, “It’s not going to get any better.” Merlyn Quaife’s remarkable interpretation of the final song in a cycle that is a cornerstone of female Lieder repertoire had left both singer and audience (myself included) wiping away a tear or two.
An intelligent singer of extensive experience and commanding a formidable vocal technique, Quaife drew upon her considerable resources to give as nuanced a performance as you could hope to find. Impeccable German diction, colour, gorgeous soft notes, and utterly convincing timing and emphasis made for a rivetting performance. As the piano took us back from the dark despair of a grieving widow to the bitter consolation of happy memories, her immersion in the music compelled the audience to join her in contemplating the journey they had just experienced together.
While Schumann’s song cycle gave the recital its title, a more appropriate one might have been “A Women’s Life, Love and Death”. Although the woman herself did not die in the first set of songs, death loomed large in what followed. Many composers have been inspired by the fates of Joan of Arc, Lady Macbeth and Mary Stuart, who all met nasty ends.
Ever champions of new music, Songmakers Australia included two new works by Contemporary Australian composers. Roger Heagney and poet Graeme Ellis continued their successful collaborative efforts with a series of interrelated songs depicting the life of Joan of Arc from her childhood in Domremy to her death at the stake at the age of nineteen. The music is melodic and full of evocative colour, calling upon singer and pianist to conjure up a variety of effects.
As Joan’s summoning Voices Quaife’s creates an atmosphere that is at once ethereal and sinister. The burning culminates in an explosive scream of pain, followed by “At last the pain subsides and I must die”, which was followed by the ringing of a mobile phone! Strangely, it was not a call from God – not a reprieve. Well these things happen – but seldom twice.
After a gentle admonition from Andrea Katz, Merlyn Quaife retired to make her entrance as Lady Macbeth for Banquo’s Buried, Alison Bauld’s setting of Shakespeare’s Sleepwalking Scene. Their attempts to establish and maintain dramatic tension were once again thwarted by the very same ringtone. It is to their great credit that they managed to diffuse any anger and just carried on with a “take two”. At the end of the piece, Quaife admitted, “I like going mad”, and the audience was certainly convinced of the truth of this. Alison Bauld’s compositional style was very well suited to her talents. Bauld’s imaginative treatment of the text, with passages of semi-spoken text and opportunities for displays of beautiful tone, interspersed with harsher outbursts, was given a suitably theatrical reading. Cheers from the capacity audience came as no surprise.
In contrast to the previous items, Schumann’s Mary Stuart Gesange, Op 135 is a short, gently melodic farewell to France. Without being overstated, it was apparent that Schumann’s sympathy with his heroine was deeply felt. A lovely performance by both artists was similarly sympathetic.
Wagner’s Les adieux de Marie, apparently was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of this unfortunate queen, who was in vogue at the time. Despite the mercenary motives, this collection of four songs was appealing and made an interesting and appropriate inclusion in a program that focused on stories of women’s lives and loves (and deaths), especially in the hands of such accomplished performers.
Not wishing to leave the audience with echoes of Mary Stuart’s despairing cries, two encores were added: a French aria of farewell, which showcased Quaife’s thoroughly warmed up, sparkling coloratura, and Brahms’ Lullaby, which celebrated his birthday and sent an enthusiastic audience home on a more cheerful note.
LOCAL HEROES 2014: A WOMAN’S LIFE AND LOVE
Melbourne Recital Centre
Picture: Merlyn Quaife