At this moment in our cultural history, as Australia emerges gradually from the restrictions imposed because of Covid 19, each live concert is a particularly reviving and refreshing experience. When that concert includes such a rarely performed work (on these shores) as Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle, Harawi, the desire to hear it is irresistible. The Brisbane Music Festival, of which Alex Raineri is the resourceful and enterprising Artistic Director, and Opera Queensland teamed up to mount this recital, which formed the first concert in the Brisbane Music Festival’s 2021 season.
The recital began with a piece originally written for voice and guitar, one of several collaborations between Jane Sheldon and Julian Curwin, based on the Ophelia story from Hamlet. It consists of several similar phrases for the singer, punctuated by a single gesture on the piano, transposed from time to time. This gesture consists of a short arpeggiated figure in the guitar’s lower register, followed by a glissando directly on the piano strings. The effect was mesmeric, and well conveyed Ophelia’s growing madness.
Jane Sheldon always sings with clarity and great purity of line. The Chansons de Bilitis by Debussy which followed showed off her extraordinary control of pianissimo, and decrescendo within pianissimo. These beautiful, erotic songs received loving treatment from pianist Alex Raineri, especially in the preludes and postludes, though I would have preferred a little more space around the climaxes. Yes, Debussy didn’t want players to use excessive rubato in his music, but we have to remember that at the end of the 19th century the bar was pretty low.
The main work of this recital was Messiaen’s amazing Harawi. This consists of 12 songs, linked to each other by themes, rhythms, textural gestures, and much more. Both music and text are repetitive to the point of obsession, but the musical language is so unfamiliar that the result is unusually compelling. They are, as the title of this concert suggests, songs of love and death – death seeming the only way out for the lovers who found themselves in an impossible position. Like Tristan and Isolde, the model of this and two other works by Messaien written at the same time, Harawi expresses the extreme anguish of unfulfilled passion, and it is no accident that it was written during Messiaen’s as yet unconsummated love affair with the pianist Yvonne Loriot.
They are a massive tour de force for both performers, and Raineri rose to the challenge superbly, extracting from the piano the enormously varied palette of colours demanded by the composer; not effortlessly, but with great passion and commitment. Sheldon’s voice soared wonderfully in the high register, in the moments of greatest tension. I found, however, that her lower and middle registers were at times lost beneath even the tactful softness of the piano parts. It could have been the fault of the acoustic – the Opera Studio is deeply unforgiving – but Sheldon didn’t seem to possess the sleight of hand, as it were, to overcome this difficult acoustic. The result was that often the audience strained to hear her singing as phrases, despite impeccable diction and always great purity of sound.
Perhaps in a nod to the connection with Opera Queensland, Sheldon stood in her spotlight quite far from the piano, who seemed sidelined as a result. Since Harawi is a piano piece as much as a vocal one this didn’t make much sense to me, until for the last song Sheldon lay down on the floor in a thespian moment. This was entirely unexpected, and focussed attention on the fact that this extraordinary and demanding work was finally coming to an end.
May Brisbane continue to see such exciting and original programs as live classical music regains its audience!
Songs of Love and Death
Jane Sheldon and Alex Raineri
Venue: Opera Queensland Studio | 140 Grey Street, South Bank QLD
Dates: 12 – 13 February 2021