A first outing by The Lieder Society of Victoria after what seemed a Lockdown eternity was certainly enough to put a spring in any Lieder lover’s step. “Spring Recital” offered further attractions in two highly talented singers – tenor Michael Petrucelli and baritone Michael Lampard – accompanied by renowned pianist Phillipa Safey in a program of sublime vocal music by Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. What is more, we were assured by LSV President, Ian Lowe, that we were permitted to remove masks if we so wished.
Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) could well be the song cycle that epitomises what so many people experienced – and continue to experience – during this time of COVID, especially as it was given so many outings as part of his 250th birthday celebrations last year. Gertrude Opera masterminded one of the most memorable series of performances in which people could book a personal phone call to have somebody sing the whole 15-minute work to them. You even had a choice of voice type and whether you wanted it sung in German or English. My soprano sang in German, and very well indeed, but the sound of pre-recorded piano accompaniment was problematic, to put it politely. Phillipa Safey’s playing was the polar opposite – sensitively coloured and at one with the singer. The six songs of the cycle are performed without a break, and Safey provided admirably connected musical flow and shifts in sentiment. Michael Petrucelli is an excellent communicator – cheerful and enthusiastic in his short introductions to the pieces and totally immersed in the atmosphere of the music. From the outset, his sensitivity to musical nuance and ability to shape a phrase were evident in the transition from a quiet, meditative opening as the poet sits thinking about his distant beloved to the quickening pulse of longing. Throughout the song cycle details of dynamic and tempo variations were observed to express the emotional range of Alois Jeitteles’ poems and Beethoven’s music. The final forte assertion that “a loving heart be reached” affirmed Petrucelli’s claim that the poet/singer never loses hope, but it was an intensely moving journey to reach that optimistic point.
Michael Lampard is best known for his operatic performances and has the voice to match – one that earned him a nomination for a Green Room Award for his performance as Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde for Melbourne Opera. Widmung, the first of his bracket of three songs by Schumann, opened with a surprising explosion of sound – burnished, focused and true. Quieter sections followed the rapturous beginning with a pleasingly modulated second verse. Following an expressive Einsamkeit (Solitude), Lampard was in his dramatic element with Die beiden Grenadiere (The Two Grenadiers) with its aggressive martial character and bombastic allegiance to his “Kaiser” to the tune of the French National Anthem, tempered by some softer moments of grieving.
The two Michaels then came together for the first of two brackets of duets by Schumann. Although Lampard is able to sing softly, his larger instrument tended to dominate, and it was mainly because the ear is drawn to the upper voice, which generally has the chief melody, that both voices could be heard clearly. A pleasure to hear, doubtless nobody minded that they began with Schumann’s Drei Duette with Wenn ich ein Vöglein war (If I were a Little Bird), a song apparently written for soprano and alto. Safey’s piano skipped along joyously – harp-like in Herbstlied (Autumn Song) and with vivacious rippling clear articulation in Schön Blümelein (Fair Little Flowers). The last was notable for a final resonant “schönen Dank”.
The second half of the program followed the format of the first with Lampard introducing Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) – an excellent choice well suited to his voice with its substantial lower register and secure upper notes. The unforced clarion ring of O Tod (O Death) was a stark prelude to a contemplation of how different men face the prospect of death. Petrucelli’s bracket of three Schumann songs included Mondnacht (Moonlit Night), one of the most magical Lied ever composed. It is always a question of whether the singer can maintain a seamless legato line, sustaining pitch in a slowly rising phrase that opens each verse. And Michael Petrucelli can. He was right in the moment, not looking at the score in front of him, just weaving the spell, spinning out the delicate gossamer thread to the very end. Two more Schumann duets from his Spanische Liebeslieder ended this wonderfully satisfying recital on an upbeat note.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Spring Recital”, presented by the Lieder Society of Victoria at Camberwell Uniting Church on November 21, 2021.