The Lieder Society of Victoria provided some welcome relief from the classical music drought that tends to afflict Melbourne throughout most of January. Unless you were up in Ballarat for the Organ Festival or down on the Peninsula for a live music fix, you might have been suffering distressing withdrawal symptoms. Those who went to Sydney for their Festival, of course, are to be envied.
Fortunately, Tabatha McFadyen’s scholarship at the Mozarteum in Salzburg meant that she could only give a recital in January. Contrary to expectation, a sizeable audience turned up at Christ Church South Yarra to hear the singer (pictured) and Alex Raineri. This was not only due to the lack of alternatives; those familiar with their work knew that this young prize-winning duo was well worth hearing. Winners of the 2013 National Liederfest and the 2014 Mietta Song Competition, along with a slew of other individual awards, they have evolved into a fairly long-standing and accomplished partnership.
For this outing they chose a program that drew on previous performances as well as drawing from newer items in their repertoire. They had won a hard fought contest against some truly formidable opposition last year for the Mietta competition with the same works by Charles Ives and Percy Grainger as well as Debussy’s “Cheveaux de Bois” from his Ariettes Oubliees, but further songs from the same Debussy song cycle were included along with Mahler’s five Ruckert Lieder.
Alex Raineri played the first and last two movements of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin before the final bracket of Mahler Lieder, providing respite for the singer as well as variety and delight for the audience. Clarity and expressiveness were to the fore and it was remarkable how well the subtlety of his playing throughout the whole program could be heard in this venue. Perhaps having the piano at full stick and on a carpet counteracted any unwanted reverberation while ensuring that the sound was finely articulated and had presence.
One result of such an unexpectedly large audience was a shortage of programs, leaving many without the contents of the recital, let alone the words. This proved to be less of a problem than it might have been since the two artists gave a brief explanation of what was being performed and its background. McFadyen is such a communicative performer that members of the audience who were unfamiliar with what was essentially a program of popular repertoire were able to follow the emotional trajectory of the works in French and German. Raineri’s eloquent rendering of the piano component did much to establish and maintain the mood and character of all the pieces, whether in English or a foreign tongue.
Although the occasional catch in the sound suggested that McFadyen might not have been in top physical condition, her work was thoughtful and highly expressive, both vocally and theatrically. Her gestures were economical, but those she used were telling, enhancing meaning and never distracting from the musical dimension. From the opening item, Ives’ “Housatonic at Stockbridge” she and Raineri displayed their command of contrasting moods.
After establishing the dreamy atmosphere of the “Contented river in a dreamy realm” the music rose to an arresting dramatic climax of “fear” in the final verse. McFadyen’s vocal and physical immersion in the voluptuous languor of Debussy’s “C’est L’extase langoureuse” and the quiet anguish of “Il pleure dans mon coeur” were beautifully captured. The lighter moments of “Cheveaux de bois”, the piano cascades in “Green” and the longing and drama of “Spleen” illuminated Verlaine’s verse and did ample justice to Debussy’s realization of its changing colours and moods. It was easy to see why these young artists have enjoyed such success given their command of nuance.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of the program was Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder – appropriately enough considering the nature of the occasion. McFadyen’s generous, secure top notes once again underpinned the more declamatory dramatic climaxes, but the quieter passages were at least equally impressive. The darker, unforced lower notes of “Um Mitternacht” gradually accumulated to give greater weight to the final dramatic utterance.
The final two Lieder of the cycle are popular treasures of Mahler’s vocal music and both were given refined treatment. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” /”I am lost to the world” was slow and meditative with both McFadyen and Raineri weaving the kind of spell that Mahler’s sublime music deserves. Little wonder that it elicited bravos and sustained applause.
Their encore was a reflection of McFadyen’s admission that she is “a complete and utter Noel Coward tragic”. A charming performance of “If love were all” showed them in lighter spirits and connected with some of the lighter moments of their program such as Ives’ “Memories A (Very Pleasant)”.
Indeed it was more than a “very pleasant” way of beginning the musical year for classical music in Melbourne – thanks to the Lieder Society of Victoria.
Heather Leviston reviewed Tabatha McFadyen & Alex Raineri in recital at Christ Church South Yarra on January 16, 2015.
The picture shows the artists at the 2014 Mietta Song Competition. Photography Laura Black.