It was with a mixture of joy and sadness that I entered the Independent Theatre in North Sydney on Saturday afternoon to hear Susannah Lawergren and Bradley Gilchrist perform the latest SongCo SOLO, Schubert’s Winterreise. Joy because Winterreise is a masterful work and any opportunity to hear it performed is exciting, and sadness because after eight years in The Song Company this was to be soprano Susannah’s farewell performance.
SongCo SOLO recitals are a chance to hear individual singers from The Song Company as soloists. The singer curates a programme of their favourite art songs or chamber music and guides the audience through their own personal journey. The first solo concert, by bass Andrew O’Connor, set the bar high indeed but Susannah was right up there with him with her own solo offering.
Let me first confess that I am a bit of a SongCo fangirl, regularly attending their concerts and workshops, and also having the wonderful experience of singing alongside the group as part of the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus, who has commissioned many new choral works specifically for SongCo as the soloists. I know Susannah’s fine bell-like soprano voice well and was particularly interested to hear how a soprano would approach this work which is so obviously the intimately personal tale of a man’s literal and emotional journey through a wintery landscape. This issue was addressed in detail in the program notes – initially Susannah did not feel it necessary to change a thing but was challenged by Brad, during the rehearsal period, as he pointed out the “unavoidable femininity of her high soprano voice” and questioned this approach… After much deep thought, a few lines of text were added in the program before the translation to set the scene, that of a mother who had lost a child, but Susannah also notes that “everyone has a different experience of this song cycle… we ended up being very specific within our musical duo, but, we feel, better to leave the rest to your imaginations!”
Female versions of Winterreise have been done before of course – Lotte Lehmann recorded and performed the first one during World War II and even as recent as last year Joyce di Donato made her Winterreise debut – but as the SongCo publicity made clear, Winterreise for soprano is a rare event, making this a very special concert series. And special it was!
If you have never heard Winterreise I’d suggest the excellent recording that David Greco and Erin Helyard made for the ABC in 2018. It is Schubert’s stormiest and most formidable song cycle. At times gut wrenching, the poetic narrative by Wilhelm Müller spans across a multitude of romantic themes, drawing torment but also resolution from the wintery landscapes. Susannah’s stunning vocal expression and ability to tell the story through simple, effective actions (caressing a scarf, touching a branch, falling in anguish to her knees) was superb, and it was quickly apparent that this was not just a singer being accompanied by a pianist, but an equally balanced duet between two extraordinary performers. Bradley Gilchrist’s deft touch and sense of drama created a beautiful interplay between voice and piano. I’m not an overtly emotional person as a rule but the end of the opening lieder, “As I leave I shall write ‘Goodnight’ on the gate for you, so you may see I have been thinking of you”, actually brought a tear to my eye.
The Independent Theatre was an excellent venue for the performance as it lent a theatrical, yet intimate quality to the work, which is quite operatic even though there are only 2 performers. The stage was set sparsely with subtle lighting effects and only a few bare branches surrounding the theatre’s stunning Steinway grand piano. The surtitles were simple and artful but the pedant in me can spot a typo a mile away and final lines of the verses remained on screen in the especially evocative pauses between the lieder, which I felt was a bit of a shame. It’s interesting how such an apparently small thing can distract one from what was otherwise a perfect performance.
The narrator’s journey and the full range of human emotion were so beautifully brought to life by Susannah and Bradley in their music making together. Works like this are made to be experienced, not just listened to, as the musicians connect us to our own deeply personal sorrows and joys – this they accomplished exquisitely.