Reminding us that “music be the food of love”, Songmakers Australia made a fascinating selection of excerpts from nine of Shakespeare’s plays, plus Sonnet 130, as interpreted by nine composers ranging chronologically from Berlioz to Alison Bauld. The chosen items sometimes centred more on madness and death, but all could be at least loosely connected with the title theme.
It would be difficult to come up with a more inspired way of opening the concert than having Andrea Katz enter alone to play Schumann’s Der Dichter spricht (The poet speaks). This warm, meditative beginning set the stage for Merlyn Quaife, as Queen Gertrude, to enter in brief dialogue with Nicholas Dinopoulos. Snatches of dialogue were also interpolated between several of Brahms’ Ophelia-Lieder (Songs of Ophelia) sung with persuasive concentration by Sally-Anne Russell.
Gerald Finzi’s Come away, come away death, from Twelfth Night, offered both a contrast of vocal colour and musical style as Dinopoulos, always a highly expressive and focused performer, used the dynamic range of his bass-baritone to dramatic effect.
An emphasis on thoughtfully sequenced programming was further established by the following duet as Quaife and Russell delivered the gentle undulations of Berlioz’ La mort d’Ophélie (The death of Ophelia) with relaxed and beautifully matched tone.
The madness element was extended with what proved to be the dramatic centerpiece of the evening: Alison Bauld’s 1982 gift to sopranos, Banquo’s buried. It is an absolute showstopper, particularly when performed by a soprano with Merlyn Quaife’s outstanding attributes. Musically and vocally gifted, she invested Lady Macbeth’s “Sleepwalking Scene” with the kind of contained intensity that compelled you to believe the piece had been written expressly for her. If you ever have a chance to hear (and see) her perform it, seize it!
Although Grainger’s Willow, Willow with its idiosyncratic rendering of the familiar traditional tune struck a more melancholy note, the general mood changed when Sally-Anne Russell injected her special mischievous sparkle into Korngold’s Under the greenwood tree. Along with Merlyn Quaife, she also enlivened Roger Fiske’s Spring with bright and breezy humour. Dinopoulos too invested plenty of humour in Quilter’s version of Sigh no more, ladies and his engaging personality allowed him to make the most of his stint on the triangle for the last programmed number, the slightly hypnotic duet by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s You spotted snakes with double tongue. Andrea Katz entered the spirit of the music with her customary sensitivity and attention to detail throughout.
The encore piece, involving all four performers, could not have been more appropriate. “Brush up your Shakespeare” from Kiss me Kate, Cole Porter’s take on Taming of the Shrew, featured a stratospheric obbligato by Quaife. Unforced and pitch perfect it provided an ideal upbeat ending to an exceptionally entertaining evening.
Of the many musical offerings to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this would have to number among the most rewarding.
Heather Leviston reviewed Songmakers Australia at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon, on September 21
The picture of Sally-Anne Russell and Andrea Katz is by Pia Johnson.