As the Melbourne chill finally lifted Rippon Lea seemed the perfect setting for the Team of Pianists final concert in their Twilight Chamber Music series. Poolside for refreshments at interval, we were definitely in Phryne Fisher territory. As an enthusiastic chorister and music lover, her creator, Kerry Greenwood, would have approved of the fine vocal fare on offer too.
Mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell opened with another impressive creation from the nineteenth century: Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Although we are accustomed to hearing it in its orchestral version, it was originally composed for voice and piano. Besides which, a pared-down instrumental component facilitates new insights into a notable composition and this conformation was ideally suited to the intimacy of the venue.
The Rippon Lea ballroom is fairly generously proportioned, but sitting only three rows from the front does raise fears that the vocal power of singers capable of filling huge performance spaces with operatic resonance might be too much of a good thing. Both Russell and Robert Macfarlane, who sang Schumann’s Dichterliebe in the second half of the program, are blessed with voices that are smooth and warmth and devoid of the unpleasant edgy timbre apparent in many voices nowadays. The power was there, beautifully harnessed, but it excited rather than grated.
As experienced opera singers, Russell and Macfarlane brought colour and dramatic presence to these two masterpieces of vocal music. Before singing, Russell spoke of her debt to the great Australian mezzo, Lauris Elms, who had shared her insights into how best to convey the subtleties of Elgar’s writing. Always a vibrant performer, Russell’s musicality, excellent diction and technical skill brought new life to Elgar’s sweeping melodies. Responsive to Russell’s emotional engagement, Darryl Coote captured much of the sweeping grandeur of Elgar’s music.
Although he introduced a change of program by citing Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major as lighter than the original, Darryl Coote’s playing was certainly not lightweight; it was a moving highlight of the program and had several members of the audience reaching for the tissues. It was just Schubert – wondrous Schubert. Arthur Benjamin’s Scherzino for solo piano was also a welcome inclusion after interval. Not only was it a work by an Australian composer, but in this case it did also provide some relief from the bitter anguish of Schumann’s songs.
Having recently heard Robert Macfarlane in Lyric Opera’s Coronation of Poppea, for which he sang a number of roles, it was difficult to adjust from the exaggerated comedy of that production to the much more serious persona of Schumann’s tragic poet and his emotional turmoil. Nevertheless, Macfarlane played this part with persuasive emotional conviction. He and Russell are always worth going out of your way to hear and the evening could not have ended on a more appropriate note than their two duets by Brahms: his Edward and So Laß uns wandern! These Romanzen und Balladen gave them ample opportunity to display their dramatic and vocal talents and their capacity to charm an audience.
It is little wonder that Team of Pianists concerts at Rippon Lea have attracted an enthusiastic following. A big “Bravo!” for the legendary Max Cooke and all those who have brought us excellent performances in such a splendid venue.
Reviewer Heather Leviston attended Great Moments Of Song, presented by the Team of Pianists at Rippon Lea ballroom on September 17, 2017, and filed her story soon after.
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