An artist who definitely deserves the title of Great Performer, Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling made a most welcome return to Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – a venue that might have been purpose built for her voice, with repertoire designed to display her artistry.
The appealing program, which included one of the most popular song cycles written for the female voice, was an additional drawcard. Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben (Woman’s Life and Love) is on every Lieder singer’s bucket list of must-sings. As part of the Local Heroes series the MRC Salon alone has fairly recently hosted interpretations by Siobhan Stagg and Merlyn Quaife, both wonderful in different ways. The final song of the cycle was given a particularly memorable reading by long-term collaborators Quaife and Andrea Katz.
This cornerstone of Lieder repertoire remains a perennial favourite of audiences even nowadays when, hopefully, a woman’s role is viewed very differently. Tim Munro’s program note includes a quote from Schumann’s 1838 letter to his future wife, Clara Wieck. It shocks with its chauvinistic expectations when he writes, “The first year of our marriage you shall forget the artist, you shall live only for yourself and your house and your husband.”
It was, however, easy to forget the narrowing of a woman’s universe as reflected in Adalbert von Chamisso’s poems and be swept along by Tilling’s account of a woman’s journey through love’s joyous moments of anticipation and fulfillment to those of loss and desolation. A slender figure in a blue sheath, Tilling encompassed the wide range of emotion with an impressive command of colour, legato and unforced beauty of tone. With Leigh Harrold as her attentive and assured accompanist, a compelling portrait was created: youthful infatuation; self-sacrificing adoration; an excited I-can’t-believe-he-loves-me outburst; a warm meditation on the ring with more passionate altruism; and the excited bustle of wedding preparation. A highlight of the cycle was Tilling’s languid disclosure of pregnancy in Süßer Freund; it was marked by marvelous purity of tone from the opening phrase and deeply expressive shifts of rhythmic pulse. The heady rapture of motherhood was followed immediately by stark, hollow tones of desolate grief at the death of the beloved, which resolved into an extended piano postlude of contemplation and acceptance – or, as Katz called it in her pre-concert talk, the missing ninth poem.
The less familiar Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) by Alban Berg is not strictly a cycle but rather his selection of songs sharing a preoccupation with the night from the 30 written during his studies with Schoenberg around 1905. Tilling’s artistry was even more apparent in these songs. Her ability to float the tone with the most exquisite delicacy contrasted with climaxes where her voice soared in a bloom of creamy, opulent tone. In Die Nachtigall you could hear the sweetness of the nightingale’s call and the roses bloom in expansive glory. It would seem we have another “Swedish nightingale” – a worthy successor to the celebrated Jenny Lind. Traumgekrönt (Crowned in dream) was finally crowned with a melting pianissimo on “Eklang die Nacht”/“the night resounded” and Im Zimmer (Indoors) shone with sunlight. The final words of Liebesode (Ode to Love): ‘Träume des Rausches – so reich an Sehnsuch!”/“Dreams of intoxication, rich with yearning” were delivered with such ravishing tone that it would be difficult to find a more perfect use of vocal colour to reflect meaning.
Back on the more familiar territory of Hector Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été (Summer Nights) – another collection of songs rather than a song cycle per se, Tilling continued to show how it’s done. Again, superlative breath control enabled her to stretch out long phrases of rapturous beauty. Although written for baritone, Sur les lagunes was an emotional tour de force as Tilling summoned up the dark hues required for this lament with Leigh Harrold in perfect accord. When she asked “Ou voulez- vous aller?” in those last phrases of L’île inconnu, it seemed that the audience would have been willing to go anywhere with her. The rapt attention of her listeners said it all; there was none of the usual distracting rustlings, beeps or coughing choruses to distract. We had been given a magical ride into the hearts of three inspired composers.
Those poor souls who missed out on attending this recital can at least hear it on ABC Classic FM later this month, but they will not have the pleasure of witnessing the personal charm that is part of the Tilling allure. Hopefully, all of these works will be made available on disc as a permanent record of the refined musicality and superb vocal command that she brings to them.
Camilla Tilling appeared as part of the Great Performers Concert Series 2016 at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 8.