ANAM: Song Cycles with Sara Macliver

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Published: 17th August, 2019

The Australian National Academy of Music continues to provide an extraordinary range of opportunities in a quest to nurture the talents of its students. Over the last couple of weeks, the education baton was passed from Israeli violinist Gregory Ahss to Australian soprano Sara Macliver, via a Masterclass with virtuoso German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser,who was here to play Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Sarah Macliver’s ANAM residency was designed to collaborate with pianists aiming to gain further insight into the art of accompanying a singer. Although Macliver is probably best known as a leading exponent of Baroque repertoire, her versatility and expertise in other areas is extensive. In this case, songs by Mozart, Schumann, Duparc and Grieg made up a program to develop the pianists’ knowledge and skills.

It was not clear why Timothy Young, ANAM’s Head of Piano and Chamber Music chose an all-female lineup of accompanists. Surely male pianists too are interested in associating their artistry with singers? The fact that all bar one – Maggie Pang from New South Wales – hailed from Queensland also gave me pause for thought. The five chosen ones worked intensively with Macliver over three days and it was clear from the way she spoke about her experience at the end of the concert that it had been a rewarding one for her and the pianists.

Four short songs by Mozart gave Jennifer Yu limited opportunities to display her capabilities, but her bright tone reflected the mainly cheerful nature of the songs and Macliver’s animated delivery. There were effective moments of contrast in parts of “Als Louise die Briefe” (When Louise burnt the letters) and in an expressive “Das Veilchen” (The Little Violet) that captured the yearning middle section and humorous ending successfully.

Sine Winther possibly had the most gratifying task for the evening with a whole song cycle to herself: Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. As a pianist who has enjoyed marked success in a number of ANAM recitals and competitions, Winther is known for her sensitive musicality; she invested this quality in every Lied of this famous and much loved song cycle. From the initial wonder of a girl falling in love to the mature resignation of a grieving woman finding consolation, Winther’s clear articulation, velvety tone and thoughtful shaping were a pleasure to hear. It was a persuasive reading from both singer and accompanist, especially impressive given the short preparation period. This song cycle might be met with some derision by the more emphatically politically correct, but for many it can be a supremely moving depiction of “a woman’s life and love”. I expect Winther will enjoy exploring it in even greater depth for years to come.

Interval was followed by two songs by Duparc, with Amanda Pang as accompanist. One of the great mélodies, “L’invitation au voyage” was given a suitably less operatic treatment on the climaxes than is sometimes heard. The gently sensuous ending evoked the “luxe, calme et volupté” of Baudelaire” poem superbly. Similarly atmospheric was their reading of “Phidylé”. Some of Macliver’s most beautifully languid soft singing came in this song and Pang did well to match the mood.

Grieg’s song cycle Haugtussa (The Mountain Girl), consists of eight songs that were shared equally between two pianists, with Hannah Pike accompanying the first four and Maggie Pang the rest. These are wonderful songs that were well suited to the artistic talents of Macliver and the two pianists. One of the delights of evening was to hear Pike approach the songs with such dynamism. She is a sensitive accompanist with a pleasing range of colour, including a lovely crystalline tone when called for. “Blåbaer-Li” (Blueberry Slopes) was bursting with character and there were some finely wrought contrasts in “Møte” (Meeting). Pang also joined in the fun of the final four songs, enjoying the jogging rhythms of “Elsk” (Love) and contrasting tragic note of “Vond Dag” (Sad Day) and the rippling effects of the final “Ved Gjaetle-Bekken” (At Gjaetle Brook).

The recital concluded with an unexpected encore: Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. With no less than Timothy Young at the keyboard, it was a mini masterclass in itself as he struck that happy balance of being totally sympathetic to the quietly reflective musical intentions of the singer while providing a complementary impetus of his own.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Song Cycles with Sara Macliver at the Australian National Academy of Music, South Melbourne Town Hall on August 14, 2019.