What a fabulous program this concert was. My two favourite Schumann song cycles, Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock and some Richard Strauss for good measure. Add wonderful performers and I could have died and gone to heaven.
The audience was sparse but very appreciative. The concert deserved a full house.
Blake Fischer, who sang the Dichterliebe (“Poets Love”) song cycle and the 4 Strauss songs, has a beautifully supported tenor voice, not unlike Fritz Wunderlich; high praise indeed.
Blake’s tempi in the song cycle were on the slow side but with his sonorous voice and tight vibrato, there is something to be said for lingering somewhat.
The performance overall was convincing and heartfelt. The emotional range was all there. From the delicate Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ (“When I look into your eyes”), the bitterness of Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen (“There is a playing of flutes and fiddles”) to the desolation of Hör ich das Liedchen klingen (“When I hear that song”), we were carried along on Schumann’s emotional roller coaster.
Martyn Parkes, the English pianist who accompanied the whole program was excellent on the whole, following the singers’ dynamics, rubato and tempo changes with great sensitivity. At times he could have taken a little less of an accompaniment role and given more full bodied tone, which might have been encouraged if the piano lid had been at half mast instead of full. For example, I did not feel the grandeur of the Rhine from the piano in Im Rhein, im heilligen Strome (“In the Rhine, that holy river”) or the strength of the giants in Die alten, bösen Lieder (“The old evil songs”). In Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet (“I cried in my dream”) the piano part felt like a pianistic accompaniment rather than a slow funeral march. One should have the sense of the coffin carried on the shoulders of the pall bearers to a sparse muffled drumbeat.
Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rock”) is a piece that is too rarely performed in Australia. I think this is one of the truly great works for clarinet. Although a shorter work, in my books it is up there with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. The guest clarinetist here was Professor Mark Walton and he performed with the Icelandic soprano Hrafnhildur Bjornsditter and pianist Martyn Parkes. This performance was uniformly wonderful from all concerned. The clarinet was warm and lyrical. Bjornsditter too, produced full tone evenly over the substantial range of her voice. Mostly the clarinet and voice alternate melodically and they echoed each other’s tone beautifully.
One felt as if all three knew the work like a close friend. They performed with a confidence that only great familiarity engenders. For example, there are rapid unison passages in the clarinet and piano right hand, which must take a lot of getting together. They were faultless here. There are also some very long phrases, both in the voice and clarinet parts. Breaths were taken in the middle of these phrases but barely noticeable and the structure of the phrases was not disturbed.
Bjornsditter’s voice had a shimmering, radiant and vibrant tone, always well supported and sustained, with a sense of expansiveness when needed. The full emotional range was here too, from the sad loneliness of the middle section to the optimism of the return of springtime.
Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (“Women’s lives and loves”) again with Bjornsditter and Parkes was touching and exquisite. In fact I had to wipe away tears in the songs Du ring an meinem Finger (“Oh ring on my finger”) and the final heart-wrenching Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan (“Now you have caused me pain for the first time”). Bjornsditter herself was carried away here too. She could barely get out the final phrase, singing it one syllable at a time, but the effect was even more powerful.
Again the full emotional spectrum was here in her delightful voice, ably supported by Parkes. Schumann’s songs range across entrancement (song 2), excited disbelief (3), humility (4), bubbling delight (5), gratitude (6), ecstasy (7) and desolation (8). What a ride! What a performance!
The four Strauss songs on the program were written as a wedding gift for his wife. Today was Fischer’s 10th wedding anniversary and he dedicated this performance of these four songs to his wife Rebecca who was in the audience. Especially wonderful was the ecstatic Heimliche Aufforderung (“Secret invitation”), which showed the very substantial dynamic range of Fischer’s wonderful voice. If that was not sufficient an anniversary present, Parkes, who had been best man and played Debussy’s Clair de Lune (“Light of the Moon”) at their wedding 10 years ago, played the piece here again as an encore and as a dedication to them both. It was a lovely way to finish the concert on such a poignant personal note.