It's almost unashamedly rarefied and elitist. A world class concert, strictly members only, in the hallowed Grand Courts of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One of an annual series, aptly christened Resonate. This year alone, Kevin Hunt and Simon Tedeschi have duelled on pianos; Christa Hughes has sinned, seven times over; Tim Draxl has plied his smooth trade. On this occasion, Songmakers Australia took us on a journey down the Rhine, a waterway that seems to have greatly inspired both poets and composers, who've steeped themselves in legends and traditions which run deep, carving a niche in the collective German identity and imagination as surely as the river cuts a swathe through the land. Foremost among these has to be Wagner, reprehensible Nazi sympathiser (Hitler spoke of Wagner's works as glorifying the heroic Teutonic nature) and musical savant, whose transcendent genius was profound enough for Warsaw ghetto survivor and seminal postwar literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki (whose parents had been marched off to the Treblinka gas chambers) to proclaim 'the biggest anti-Semite in the history of German culture was Richard Wagner and the greatest opera I know is Tristan and Isolde’. Given Wagner's leanings and my own Jewish heritage, my listening tends to be tainted by the spectre of what might pass for heroic in German culture. Happily, Andrea Katz (piano) and Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo soprano) afford us a diversity to which to lend and bend an ear, beginning with PK's favourite, Mahler, and his Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend), from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; an anthology of songs based on anonymous folk poems. Mahler gets extra credit for being deemed degenerate by the Nazis.

Essentially, a folk dance in waltz time, it's every bit as charming (mind you, its idyll is more than vaguely ironic and unsettling, in light of the historical events in the region which were set to unfold) as its reputation suggests; a tune that's likely to be familiar to you, all about reaping. Well, I say reaping, but it's really about love; the sweetheart freshly harvested who blows away with the breeze. 'What use is my reaping, if the sickle doesn't cut?' Yes, in love, as in reaping, one must always carry a big, sharp sickle. Otherwise, what's a man (or woman) to do. Why, throw in some bling, of course. A golden ring, to sweeten the deal. And maybe waive the prenups. It's a sweetly sentimental, though never cloying melody, which Katz trickled out daintily, as if to emulate the stirrings of the Neckar, as it flows out of the Black Forest. Russell's voice wasn't quite warmed up, this being the opening piece, but she seems to have a real grasp of the material (in German, too) and expressiveness is one of the keynotes of her presentation. The hair was looking a little overblown (literally); perhaps someone should've wrested the dryer from her hands a little earlier, to avoid the Bee Gees video clip, or Kath and Kim, coiffure, but none could fault the delicacy of her reading. Nor is it any mean feat to calibrate one's performance for such fineness in such a  resonant space.

Liszt's taste in songs ran quite counter to that of Mahler's. Old Franz drew on poems as well, but those more dramatic than romantic in flavour, very much in keeping with the nineteenth century trend. The opening verse of Der Konig in Thule, by Goethe, featured in this programme, exemplifies that contention.

You may well recognise it, from Faust.

There was a king in Thule,
So faithful to the grave.
His love, when she was dying,
A goblet of gold him gave.

So, a little awkward, in translation, perhaps, but you get the gist. And he was quite keen on the short form it seems, since he composed around seventy-two of them. It's a wonderful showcase for a mezzo and Sally-Anne doesn't shirk, channelling the contralto part of her register to great effect (hers is nothing if not a versatile instrument). Actually, my earlier characterisation of 'dramatic' seriously understates the mood of this particular piece, which is deeply tragic yet, since it is fantastical, retains a certain, gentler sense of lamentation, at the same time. Russell radiates warmth and compassion for the hapless regent, with a gravitas and necessarily darker colour than would ever be possible from a soprano; (given their pre-eminent status, it's all too easy to overlook their limitations). I believe there are numerous renditions by tenors, but by current standards, I suppose, the pianistic ornamentation might be perceived as more in keeping with the soundtrack of a silent movie and, as such, is somewhat harder to take entirely seriously for it. But Katz captures it's more disturbing subtleties.

Liszt also set a Heine poem, of later vintage: Die Lorelei. There would be few, surely, who haven't encountered this dangerously seductive, fair, fish-tailed home-wrecker. Home-wrecker? Nay, ship-wrecker! Talk about femme fatale, or fatal attraction. The song is as bewitching as its bodacious subject; sophisticated and rendered with profound sensitivity by Katz, while Russell soars, with nary a hint of harshness (on this basis, I have to confess, I'd opt for her reading even over, say, Dame Janet Baker's). A word of praise for Liszt here, for whom I feel, inasmuch as contemporaneous critics accused him of not understanding, or adhering, to the lied form, thereby relegating him to second class, behind the likes of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and, for all I know, Shoehorn. They missed the point. Liszt strove to be more original; a leader (no pun intended), rather than mere follower. If only the German people, en masse, had been more determined, in that respect.

Speaking of Schumann, if one were to follow a lieder composer, one could do no better (other than, perhaps, Schubert) than put one's faith in him. He wrote more than twice as many songs as Liszt, including Von Fremden Landern und Menschen, a work of considerable poignancy, simplicity and, thus, memorability, for solo piano. Katz puts it across with achingly beautiful mastery; so much so, the evening could very easily have ended here and we all would've likely gone home to blissful slumbers.

Sonntags am Rhein can be effortlessly translated, onomatopoeically, to Sundays on the Rhine and it's as sunny, relaxed and picturesque as the title implies. It is hopelessly and unapologetically nostalgic, true to form. Embodying the pastoral idyll and romanticism for which early German art song is famous, Reinick's text even makes reference to the 'pious, true fatherland', again setting up an unwittingly clanging resonance afforded by subsequent history. Certainly, this piece betrays nothing of the 'psychotic melancholia' with which Schumann came to be diagnosed and which, effectively, cut his life painfully short. Sally-Anne deploys her well-documented facility for legato with vivacity, imparting a lovely, lyrical buoyancy to the tune. Her notes are clear and round, like beautiful, big bubbles wafting up towards the high, vaulted ceiling; remembering we're in a stately room in which, while experiencing the aurally sublime, we may also feat out eyes on paintings such as Sydney Long's art nouveau masterpiece, Pan, a seminal work that heralded a movement towards abstractionism. As for Pan, it may to be the Black Forest, but a gum-treed Arcadia works for me.

But there's no getting away from the Rhine and, given songs such as Im Rhein, Im Heiligen Strome, who'd wish it? In it, of course, Schumann, with a little bit of help from Heine, poetically transfigures this mighty watercourse, making it veritably baptismal; a holy river. Without ever having seen it, one can intuit a sense of the grandeur of the great Koln cathedral, shimmering, in reflected glory. Don't be surprised, either, if you should discern a byte of Bach: your ears don't deceive. This is an elegant song indeed; imbued with a palpable sense of pride. It calls for complete sovereignty over one's voice and, again, we have Sally-Anne to revere for matching that standard, so that, short though it may be, this song, almost hymnal, stands as an unassuming highlight.

Waldesgesprach (Conversation In The Wood) is another beguiling tale about Lorelei, or a version of her. (Yes, she would appear to get around.) Again, succinct and graceful, it has the mesmerising quality of a fairytale as, late, on a cold evening (never a good start), a man rides through the forest, where he meets a beautiful woman and his fate. Mind you, what a way to go. And how refreshing to have these songs, so often unquestioningly sung by men, sung by a woman. In this instance, I'm only aware of one other (Elly Ameling) attempting it, to exalted effect; Russell proves equally lustrous and, again, intensely expressive. A salient point: with opera singers, I feel we're sometimes so obsessed with estimating melodiousness, we too often overlook interpretive skill. Happily, Sally-Anne shines in both departments.

And so to Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. As if Tristan and Isolde wasn't enough to keep him busy pedalling, Wagner composed this song cycle at the same time. Wagner presumably knew on which side his brot was buttered, for Wesendonck was married to one of his patrons. There's more than a little evidence, on both sides of the creative equation, to suggest the relationship between the two may've transcended strictly platonic, which adds a little sizzle to the sausage, or brutzeln to the wurst.

Der Engel describes the last resort of the lovelorn: hanging hopes on a heavenly ascent. Russell takes us there, on winged voice. Stehe Still could almost have been written yesterday. The 'roaring and rushing wheel of time', after all, careens no faster, surely, than now. This is a challenging song for the very best of singers (Jessye Norman renders a superb version), but, since we were graced by the presence of one, we were regaled with a luxuriant timbre and quite extraordinary dynamics.

Im Treibhaus (In The Hothouse) draws an odd, if imaginative, metaphor, of tropical plants transposed to life support in a cold clime. Regardless of the merits of the lyric, though, Wagner has scored something definitively disconsolate and, as with preceding songs, Katz lent unobtrusive support to Russell's mournful vocal, as theatrical as it was spellbindingly euphonious. It's obvious, by this point, that Russell paints from a plentiful palette.

Schmerzen, which translates as sorrows, or anguish, evokes, for mine, a menacing sky, laden with inky clouds. The opening image, of a weeping evening sun, it's pretty eyes red, is almost unbearable and RW sure knows how to ramp up the pitiableness and Sally-Anne capitalises. One of my reference points is a recording by Tamara Takacs and Russell gives her more than a run for the money.

To conclude, Traume (Dreams), which I'd like to say is more optimistic, but there's no escaping the weight of Wagner, which feels a little like one of those lead aprons a dental nurse places on one's chest before an x-ray.

Katz and Russell make a devastating duo and I can't imagine any better way to take a headlong plunge into the Rhine, or walk along its banks. Thanks to a considered programme, this pair take us deep into the heart of German culture. It's as if they've built yet another castle, but one constructed with music, for us to regard with awe.      

Resonate 2013 – Concert series
A Rhine Journey
Songmakers Australia

Venue: Art Gallery Society of NSW
Dates: 27 September 2013
Tickets: $80 – $70
Bookings: 02 9225 1878




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