Such an enthusiastic audience greeted tenor Michael Smallwood (pictured) and pianist Eidit Golner at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon on this wintry Tuesday evening that I was reminded how good Melbourne audiences can be when they anticipate this level of quality in music making. From students to the very elderly, the close-to-full house audience was absolutely primed.
I was eager to hear how Michael Smallwood’s voice had developed since he left Australia for work with German opera companies. I had not heard him in perhaps fifteen years. Interestingly, though there is certainly an increase in power over the intervening years he retains a lightness which is wonderful in service of the clarity of the text. Smallwood’s diction is also exemplary.
I am Lost to the World was a big sing by any standards, with the program comprising Mahler’ s Rückert-Lieder, selected lieder by Mendelssohn, and two works by Beethoven: Adelaide and An die ferne Geliebte Op.98. Smallwood covered the range of intensity the works demand – these songs after all represent some of the peak of German romanticism, and each composer demands so much of the singer. Golner’s accompaniments were flawless in their sensitivity to his singing, and the drama of the texts. Her two solos provided just the right relief from the intensely emotional writing of the above mentioned song list.
One aspect of the performance was enlightening in a particular way. Listeners wanted to applaud each individual song, but were sensitive enough to refrain from doing so when Smallwood made a gesture for us to hold on until the end of the particular cycle. The thread of tension between each of the pieces within a cycle was increased, and I was struck by the relationships between the pieces – the subtle shifts of musical style that the composer used in setting the different emotional and dramatic content of each of the texts. It was clear that much thought had gone into the structure of these sets by both the composer and the performers, and I think this is thrown into relief in the concert environment such as this. Applause between pieces, while cathartic in its own right, tends to break the kind of continuity that invites reflections on this subtle range of contrasts made very evident in this presentation. I was delighted to realise that at presentations such as this, we can re-learn a better attention span, and at the same time reap its rewards.
I did rather wish at times the applause would be delayed until the final notes of Golner’s beautifully shaped cadences had vanished, but perhaps I wanted too much. In any case, the audience’s enthusiasm was palpable. It was also fascinating to hear the Mahler somewhat shorn of the usually heard rich orchestral settings – the architecture of the lines and harmonic content just a little more evident in the slightly spare piano treatments.
The Salon is surely among the best places in Melbourne to experience this intimate style of music making – the immediacy of the acoustic is so beautifully designed to highlight purely human music making. In addition, set “in the round” as this presentation meant that nobody was more than a few rows from the performers. Yet one aspect of the performance I found alienating – the lighting effects at times were so exaggerated that they detracted from watching the performers. Closing my eyes and listening restored the intimacy, but it was a pity that the lighting design was so over the top. Perhaps it would be better to take a lead from the nature of the music itself – music which shows a world of subtle variety within the limits of the dynamic ranges of a single tenor voice, and a piano.
Overall, I am Lost to the World was a most satisfying evening of music making, demonstrating the range of emotion, drama and subtleties in the presentation of something that was so much more than a lieder recital.
Peter Hurley reviewed this performance on June 28, 2016.