Australian Art Song
$23 (Australian dollars)
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|Percy Grainger||The Power of Love|
Hard Hearted Barb'ra (H)Ellen
The Love Song of the Har Dyal
The Sprig of Thyme
Died for Love
|Fritz Hart||Five Songs to Texts by William Sharp, Op. 64|
|Dorian Le Gallienne||Three Shakespeare Settings|
|Linda Phillips||Two Songs|
|David Horowicz ||Midsummer Daydream|
|Keith Humble ||Eight Cabaret Songs|
|Merlyn Quaife is not Australia's best-known singer internationally, but she is possibly its most adventurous. Who else these days would dare to market a CD with such a forbidding title, openly declaring that it's a recital of art songs, and Australian ones at that? Quaife's bold companion in this project is pianist Michael Kieran Harvey (who, with his sister, forms the Australian Virtuosi). |
Quaife has something of an all-purpose soprano voice: mellow, of medium range and heft, with a noticeable but narrow and well-controlled vibrato. She has appeared in almost every conceivable kind of opera, from Mozart to bel canto to Wagner to Adams (Nixon in China), as well as myriad concert and recital performances. Quaife has long been a staunch supporter of new works (two of the songs on this disc were written for her), and her performances are distinguished by intense commitment as well as musical skill.
The program spans the 20th century and features Percy Grainger in particular; all the composers represented have some connection with Melbourne (where Quaife makes her home). Grainger (1882–1961) was born in that city, though he made most of his career in foreign parts and his songs here have little if anything to do with Australia. The English-born Fritz Bennicke Hart (1874–1949) spent some 30 years in Australia and became director of Melbourne's Conservatorium; the others — Dorian le Gallienne (1915–1963), Linda Phillips (1899–2002), Keith Humble (1927–1995), Christopher Willcock (b. 1947) and David Horowicz (b. 1960) — are all Australian-born and have lived and worked in the city.
The works by Grainger, Hart, le Gallienne and Phillips are all in a similar mode, from the early 20th-century lyrical-pastoral English tradition that focuses on nature and a romantic view of personal relations. With Willcock, Horowicz and Humble, we are hauled a bit rudely into the last decade of the century: their songs use a sharper contemporary idiom, with less predictable chord progressions, unexpected dissonances, quirkier rhythms and more varied tempos. Moreover, the later texts (including several disingenuous verses by W. H. Auden) show a concern for more contemporary themes: the unease of white Australians in a stolen land, the superficiality of a woman lounging on a beach with "a fortified G and T" [gin and tonic] and so on.
The program is arranged with the Grainger songs interspersed amongst the other works. This is not entirely successful — the innocent pastoralism of Grainger and his contemporaries sits uncomfortably alongside the sharp-edged skepticism of the later works — and a more standard chronological arrangement might have worked better.
The accompanying booklet is downright annoying, with the texts arranged chronologically rather than in order of performance and the notes on the composers in yet a different order. Luckily, Quaife's diction is so good that the texts are, to an extent, superfluous. Her reading of the three more contemporary works is quite riveting: she gives each change of mood its full due, and she is not afraid to make an unmusical noise to illustrate a point — as in Horowicz's Midsummer Daydream, when Quaife (as the woman on the beach) shrieks "HER!?!" in outraged disappointment as the handsome object of her fantasies sidles up to someone else.
These songs all require more than pianistic tinkling for their accompaniment, relying on a close partnership between singer and player to create the varied moods. Sometimes the vocal melody departs quite radically from that of the keyboard; often, particularly in the more recent works, the song requires from the singer considerable rubato, to which the accompanist must be alert. Harvey is equal to the challenge, able to take off in a different direction from the singer but being at hand when needed for their reunion. He and Quaife make excellent partners for this stimulating venture.
© andante Corp. March 2003. All rights reserved.
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