MASC: Scandinavian Songs

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Published: 24th March, 2019

One of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s most welcome initiatives has been to feature homegrown talent in their Local Heroes series, now in its eighth year. A regular participant over many years, Melbourne Art Song Collective, guided by pianist Eidit Golder, has collaborated with many outstanding singers in programs that celebrate the art song tradition in a blend of popular and lesser-known works. This recital was no exception.

Brenton Spiteri, a young Australian tenor who first came to wide public attention when he won the Herald Sun Aria in 2012, has since had extensive concert experience and been engaged as a soloist with symphony orchestras in Australia and New Zealand as well as singing principal roles with major opera companies. Although he has been highly praised for his vocal agility and a musicality that enables him to undertake extremely challenging contemporary scores with notable success, these were not the qualities that were most in demand for this recital.

In a program of Romantic songs by Jean Sibelius, Wilhelm Stenhammar and Edvard Grieg, his musical expressiveness, exemplary diction and a facility with languages enabled his appealing tenor to convey the qualities of the varied Scandinavian songs to best advantage. Whether all song texts should be supplied to an audience is a moot point. When the material is unfamiliar to the average concert- goer, there is no doubt that there is much to be gained by supplying the text and translation to enhance an appreciation of the songs themselves and an artist’s ability to create meaning with detailed vocal colouring. In this case, any listeners with heads exclusively buried in the text would have missed Spiteri’s uncommon ability to use facial expression to convey the mood of the text. It is a talent that has doubtless been honed by numerous opera performances.

Although Finland’s most celebrated composer, Sibelius wrote many of his songs in German and shared with other German Romantic composers a deep love of nature. It was a cheerful opening to the bracket of six songs, “Sechs Gesänge”, op. 50. Lenzgesang (Song of Spring) and Spiteri’s bright tenor – and face – shone with youthful enthusiasm in welcoming Spring. Some of the darker moments of the song cycle occasionally would have benefitted from more strength on lower notes but reliably clean attack and vibrant ring on upper notes were a constant pleasure. Golder’s piano accompaniment was graceful and responsive with some particularly heartfelt crescendos in between the verses of Sehnsucht (Longing). Her rippling accompaniment to Aus Banger Brust (From a troubled heart) introduced some of the most passionate moments of the recital, where Spiteri’s dramatic and vocal power were given full rein.

From Finland, the program moved to Sweden for Stenhammar’s “Fyra Stockholmsdikter, op. 38, a cycle of four songs related to Stockholm sites: St Klara’s Church, a forest hill, the Old Town, plus a final “Drinking Song” that moved along in a jaunty fashion, in tune with the barrel-organ referred to in the opening phrase. The songs made for pleasant listening and there was sufficient drama and subtlety apparent to justify their inclusion as rarely-heard items that warrant attention. Spiteri appeared to be quite at home with Swedish, delighting in the expressive qualities of the language and the music. Golder added two short movements from Stenhammar’s Sensomanmmarnätter (Nights of Late Summer) for solo piano, evoking a mood akin to “Nordic noir” for Tranquillo e soave and a more relaxed, perfumed mood in Piano. Non troppo lento.

Then it was off to Norway (and back to the German language) for Grieg’s Six Songs, Op. 48. These and the encore item: his wonderful A Swan, were performed with great sensitivity and artistic imagination, producing some of the most satisfying moments of the recital. Spiteri conjured up “The Quiet Nightingale” with a repeated “Tandaradei!” so effectively that listeners were tempted to look up to see the bird with him. Passion and nostalgia drove the emotions in a climactic Zur Rosenzeit (Roses). A fine, anchored top note rounded off the last of the six songs: Ein Traum (A Dream), which was greeted with enthusiastic applause by a sizeable audience.

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Heather Leviston reviewed MASC’s Scandinavian Songs performed in the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on March19, 2019.