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Recital: Deborah Humble

by Heather Leviston

If ever there was a diva with an eye and ear for refined detail it would have to be Deborah Humble. Under the auspices of The Richard Wagner Society, this ultra-glamorous mezzo soprano, who captured the hearts of Melbourne audiences with her moving portrayals of Erda and Waltraute in Wagner’s Ring last year, gave a splendidly nuanced recital of Lieder by Brahms and Wagner on Monday evening.

Looking every centimetre the international diva that she is, in a superb dusty-rose silk two-piece evening ensemble (with perfectly matching lipstick), Humble and her superb accompanist Raymond Lawrence began the recital with Brahms’ eight Ziegeunerlieder, arranged for solo voice and piano. Bursting with fiery gypsy temperament, the spirited opening number of the set established the tone for an evening of dramatic intensity. Not that it was all sound and fury; in fact, the wide range of emotional expression was a notable feature of the recital.

Apart from possessing a beautiful voice, with riveting dark hued notes and an absolutely secure technique throughout her impressive vocal range, Humble’s gifts as a storyteller are remarkable. This could perhaps be attributed to her extensive experience on the operatic stage, but seems rather to stem from an innate ability to inhabit the spirit of a song and bring its characters and characteristics into sharp focus. There was no trace of slick professionalism (though she is professional to the core) or histrionic gesture, but a genuine warmth and sweetness that charmed the audience into entering the microcosms of Brahms’ and Wagner’s creations.

With the contrasting moods of Ziegeunerlieder, one moment passionately denouncing a faithless heart and mourning lost love and the next celebrating the joys of life and love, either playfully or with moving lyricism, Humble and Lawrence took the audience on an enchanted journey.

A selection of four contrasting songs by Brahms afforded further opportunities for the pair to weave their magic. Immer leise wird mein Schlummer was a study in the power of word painting and the soft, gentle singing of Wie Melodien sieht es mir, with Lawrence’s wonderfully sensitive accompaniment, was simply ravishing. Being accustomed to a particular recording of Meine Liebe ist grün, I was struck by just how tasteful and unaffected Humble’s singing is. Without any encumbering vocal mannerisms, she was able to convey all the Brahmsian excitement and grandeur that this outburst of joy contains. Her personification of a stupidly insistent suitor in dialogue with a spunky maid in Vergebliches Ständchen was an entertaining conclusion to this group of songs. Given that she has been based in Hamburg for several years, it is perhaps not surprising that her German diction is spot on and that she is able to invest every word with meaning.

Humble and Lawrence were joined by Jennifer Brasch on viola for Brahms’ Zwei Lieder, Opus 19, written for his friends, violinist Joseph Joachim and his mezzo-soprano wife. Of the almost 200 songs he composed for solo voice and piano, these were the only ones he ever wrote for an extra instrument. Undoubtedly he would have approved of the way Humble’s expressive voice blended so beautifully with the darker tones of the viola.

After interval, came just what would expect in a concert organised by the Wagner Society: some Wagner. The five songs that comprise his Wesendonck Lieder are settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, his lover and muse at the time of their composition. The quality of the poems themselves has been the subject of some criticism, but there is no question that Wagner’s erotic inspiration transformed them into something extraordinarily compelling. They were all of that and more with Humble and Lawrence as gifted interpreters. Rhythmic elasticity, dramatic urgency, colour, line and top notes that bloomed effortlessly resulted in a very special musical experience. In the detail and weight given to the words of Stehe Still could be heard something of the evocations of Erde. Lawrence gave the final passage a timeless meditative quality too. The mystery and magic of a voice and piano speaking as one was possibly most apparent in Im Treibhaus. The restrained tempo created a hush that enabled the listener to register meaning and fully absorb the atmosphere.

Although some members of the audience might have preferred to have the strains of Träume resonating in the memory as the final item of the recital, a recently discovered piece of music by Mendelssohn was an interesting inclusion and provided an opportunity for Deborah Humble to speak to the audience by way of an introduction to its history. Her encore from German operetta, Lehar’s Meine Lippen, sie Kussen so Heisse, was not only an opportunity to show off some of the more spectacular features of her voice, it also reprised the gypsy flavor that opened the recital. Going by the enthusiastic reception that greeted her alluring performance, it would be fair to say that every member of the audience was thoroughly seduced.

Heather Leviston reviewed this performance at Flockhart Hall, Methodist Ladies College on June 2, 2014

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