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The English Songbook

by Heather Leviston

Of the many excellent recitals presented in the Salon as part of the Local Heroes series, Continuo Collective’s English Songbook, featuring tenor Brenton Spiteri, would have to rate among the most accomplished. Read Heather Leviston’s review …

In a program mainly comprising works by Benjamin Britten and John Dowland, Geoffrey Morris (guitars) and Samantha Cohen (lute, theorbo) displayed technical assurance and musical eloquence. Brenton Spiteri is a young tenor equally endowed. His clear, firm voice has considerable beauty and his superb breath control ensured that phrasing was musical and meaningful. Intelligence and thorough preparation are obviously important components of his professionalism.

What sets him apart from many other young singers is his ability to communicate with his audience. Although he used a score, he was not dependent on it and sang most of the program from memory. Seated with the players a strong sense of intimacy and ensemble was immediately established. The contrasting moods of Britten’s Songs from the Chinese were conveyed by an emphasis on the drama of these pieces and Spiteri’s emotional involvement.

A gentler, more melancholy mood prevailed in three gems from Dowland’s The First Booke of Songes, where Spiteri’s warm, velvety voice spun long, beguiling phrases. The transition from the last of the three songs, Come Heavy Sleep, into Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland was extremely effective. Beginning with its quasi-improvisatory passage, Geoffrey Morris gave a sensitive and gloriously sonorous reading of a work written for the great English lutenist and guitarist, Julian Bream. Based on Come Heavy Sleep, it is a work that made an important contribution to the establishment of the guitar’s modern repertoire. Some atmospheric blue lighting and the appearance of a crescent moon added to the nocturnal spirit.

The following Folk Songs by Britten again provided an opportunity for variation in mood and character on the part of singer, now standing, and guitarist. The jaunty humour of Sailor-Boy and tongue-in-cheek-drama of The Soldier and the Sailor were given a spirited treatment.

Although not quite English, two songs by talented Melbourne composer Dermot Tutty made an appealing conclusion to the program. With Samantha Cohen on theorbo and Geoffrey Morris on guitar, Tutty explored the capacity of these instruments to convey the spinning of Spring Snowflake and fading shimmer of blue in Falsely Wed. His sympathetic understanding of the tenor voice made for some particularly lovely moments, most notably in exquisite soft passages.

Both works reflected a gratifyingly fruitful collaboration between the composer and an unusual configuration of performers.


Continuo Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 17

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