Vocalise – Rachmaninoff and Poulenc,
Omega Ensemble with Lee Abrahmsen, soprano
Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
21 October, 2018
Soprano Lee Abrahmsen with pianist Maria Raspopova and clarinettist David Rowden, Co-Artistic Directors of Omega Ensemble, presented an engaging afternoon of all too rarely heard choicest Art Song in a vividly contrasting programme of songs by Poulenc and Rachmaninoff. Also included in the program was the Australian premiere of Ian Munro’s song cycle Letter to a Friend, a surprise piano interlude of selections from Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives opus 22 from Raspopova and Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Feslen (The Shepherd on the Rock) D965, opus 129.
Art Song is a particularly challenging genre, sung in an intimate setting, with a complex story to tell and colourful characters to draw within a compact framework. Equivalent demands are made of both pianist and singer, often described as “equal partners” in the narrative.
Francis Poulenc was a consummate teller of stories in song. His close performing partner of 25 years, the French baritone Pierre Bernac wrote “Most of Francis Poulenc’s finest work was in the field of vocal composition…His inspiration never flowed more spontaneously than when stimulated by a literary text.” Banalités is a series of five unrelated mélodies to poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. From this quintet of songs, Abrahmsen and Raspopova selected Chanson d’Orkenise, Hôtel and Voyage à Paris. Bernac describes Hôtel as ‘the laziest song ever written’ and Voyage à Paris as a valse musette which sets ‘deliciously stupid doggerel verses.’ Tramp and carter, uncouth sneering guards, an indolent poet intoxicated with smoke and the light heartedness of the traveller to Paris, were all portrayed by singer and pianist in style.
Combined with these were other mélodies from Poulenc’s substantial song book: C, Air vif, Violon, and Les Gars qui vont a la fête. Altogether, a formidable compendium of moods and characters. The performers injected a note of tragedy, achieving a perfect legato in C , the ‘explosion of joy’ that is Air vif, the Hungarian flavour of Violon and the unbridled exuberance of country lads off to have fun at the village fair in Les Gars qui vont a la fête. Both performers beautifully captured the joie de vivre of French melodies with inflexions, accents and timbre.
Rachmaninoff ranks with Poulenc as a skilled writer of Art Song. The five selections from Romances opus 34, opened with the famous Vocalise, no 14, a wordless song made all the more challenging as there are no consonants on which to hang the vowels and melody. Abrahmsen gave a silken smooth performance of the Vocalise, demonstrating her higher register, contrasted with the intense drama of Muza, the turbulent and powerful Arion and an attractively rounded lower register in Voskresheniye Lazarya. Raspopova’s soloistic strengths came to the fore in Kaye Schast’ye creating a profusion of strength and colour.
Pianist Maria Raspopova presented a surprise solo segment of five excerpts from Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, opus 22, the entire collection of which she has just released as a debut album on the Omega Classics label and which she will perform in recital in December.
Lee Abrahmsen the returned to the stage to present the Australian premiere of Ian Munro’s Letter to a Friend, a cycle of originally three songs which premiered in 2009 to which Munro added three more songs for this performance. Set to the words of Judith Wright, it is a substantial song cycle that embraces the themes of friendship, and the elements from the sea to the sky. There is much artistry with an ostinato pattern representing small waves, the unease of Black is the Night, and the low rocking rhythm of In the depth, reminiscent of Brahms’ Wiegenlied. As with any relatively new work, time will tell if it is integrated into the canon with further performances, interpretations by different artists and recordings.
Finally, clarinetist David Rowden joined the duo for a delightful performance of Schubert’s pastoral masterpiece, The Shepherd on the Rock. Voice and clarinet obbligato were well matched in this conversation. Rowden’s introduction was graceful and beautifully controlled, echoed by Abrahmsen negotiating the athletic soprano line with consummate ease, as they traversed the lyrical middle section to arrive at the effervescent finale.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©