Greta Bradman: Four Last Songs

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Published: 26th August, 2017

Australian National Academy of Music has once again produced one of the most satisfying concerts of classical music on offer. Although the main attraction was Greta Bradman’s performance of Richard Strauss’s iconic Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), other less familiar works written by German-speaking composers in the first half of the twentieth century were of exceptional interest.

Arnold Schoenberg’s twenty-two minute Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 gave an accomplished ensemble of five string and ten wind players ample opportunity to demonstrate that the future of classical music is in safe hands. Under the expert guidance of Matthias Foremny (currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Leipzig Opera House and Principal Conductor of the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester), the young musicians met the notorious challenges of balance and intonation to create a coherent musical landscape that commanded attention.

Foremny brought an interesting, more personal note to the concert in his introduction to the Schoenberg and in his comments about Strauss as the stage was reset for a much larger ensemble. The lushness of the orchestration and emphasis on soaring melody for the so-called Four Last Songs was in stark contrast to the previous work and made it difficult to believe that Strauss’s 1947-48 work came 42 years after Schoenberg’s elusive tonality.

There was a great deal to admire in Bradman’s interpretation of Strauss’s gift to sopranos. Even so, certain vocal characteristics divided listener opinion. Her tone can be overly covered and diction sacrificed to vocal line, which sometimes inhibits full expression of textual meaning. The resonant acoustic of the South Melbourne Town Hall is generally kind to performers, but can prove problematic. In the first song, Früling (Springtime) a sudden, penetrating lunge in volume on the top notes might have been less out of place in a dryer acoustic. Despite these reservations, at its best, Bradman’s singing was simply wonderful, especially in the softer surging phrases of Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). Passages of exquisite floating tone had many thinking that this was just about as good as singing gets. A glowing presence and uncommon physical beauty are integral to her general expressiveness and added to the pleasure of the musical experience. William Huxtable made a sensitive contribution to the final song Im Abendrot (At Sunset) with his violin solo.

Following interval, Bradman sang Marietta’s Lied from Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. A popular aria much favoured by sopranos for its emotional lyricism, it is possibly the single reason why the general public has become aware of this opera. Prefaced by some beautifully delicate playing from the orchestra, Bradman gave a committed performance, adorned by soft singing that took the breath away. Apart from the need for a little more breadth and elasticity, the orchestral playing was, again, very accomplished.

The final two works brought significant depth to the program. Unfortunately, neither the transformation scene from Strauss’s opera, Daphne, nor the Suite from Kurt Weill’s opera Der Silbersee, are often performed in Melbourne. Both the singing and playing of Strauss’s miniature tone poem demonstrated that this work deserves much greater attention. ANAM students were at their excellent best for Weill’s last German work, written in 1932-3. Within the six contrasting numbers the orchestra maintained a sense of style that highlighted the bittersweet satirical edge. From Huxtable’s graceful violin solo in Das Lied der Verkäuferinnen (Song of the Shopgirls) to the powerful brass and lower strings of Das Lied von der Rache (The Song of Vengeance) and the dramatic outbursts of the Finale, it was a riveting performance that negotiated the twists and turns of Weill’s compelling score with considerable finesse.

Having a repeated performance is unusual for ANAM, but essential given the public’s enthusiasm for their resident soprano and the exceptionally high standard of the ANAM orchestra.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Greta Bradman: Four Last Songs with the Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra at South Melbourne Town Hall on Saturday August 19, 2017.