A fine but ostensibly unspectacular concert takes a surprising, delightful and memorable turn.
Schumann, Five Songs from Myrthen, Opus 25
Schumann, Frauenliebe und –leben, Opus 42
Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs
Reynaldo Hahn, Three Songs from Venezia
Folk Songs from South Africa
Pumeza Matshikiza is a striking South African soprano with a burgeoning operatic career and a couple of well-regarded recordings to her name. Tonight she was a new discovery for this reviewer, and certainly one I shall follow with great interest and pleasure from here onwards. Simon Lepper is much more well known as one of the great Lieder-pianists of today, along with Joseph Middleton and Julius Drake. His contribution was tonight, as on every occasion I have seen him, delivered with great sensitivity and skill. Lepper stepped coolly on to the stage in a smart, well-tailored suit, and Matshikiza dazzled with very high platform shoes, a smart black dress, and dazzling earrings composed of hoops upon hoops. It was (only slightly) frustrating, then, that she spent almost the entire night obscured behind a music stand, which with its ugly black plastic, and scuffed, worn appearance, really detracted from what should have been a fine visual spectacle, as well as a merely sonorous one.
The concert’s first half was entirely devoted to Schumann; and, I must confess, I slightly dreaded this prospect, until the performers reminded me of what is so great in this composer, which was a testament to the lyricism, expression and variety in their performances. Every phrase was shaped for sweetness by means of an excellent control of minute dynamics from both voice and piano, and the beauty of the poems so well chosen by Schumann for his musical settings was clearly communicated by Matshikiza’s pronunciation of the German. It was strange, then, when I heard a man in the interval across from me repeatedly say the word “diction!” to his concert-co-goer. He never elaborated on this gnomic phrase but, if he meant it to be as negative as to me it sounded, then we can only conclude with the old truth, that there is no pleasing some people.
And besides, the diction is by now hardly an issue whatsoever, since the Howard Assembly Room has just recently introduced the double screen above and to the side of the stage which they use for their Opera North shows: this gives the song title in the original language, with a translation, and then translates the song line-by-line as the performers play it. In a way this communication tool is welcome, but I wonder if it does at all cheapen the experience of going to a Lieder concert in order to appreciate the music of 1) the composer and 2) of the poet and their language. This objection might seem to be confirmed, or at least supported, by the fact that the finale—the South African songs—had no translation, and were the most well-received pieces of the night. There are of course other reasons for this, which I shall mention, but the absence of the screens’ distraction seemed to allow a more intense engagement—and even involvement—on the part of the audience.
The Schumann all proceeded very nicely, with unimpeachable German, and excellent musical skill. The only (fussy) criticism I might make is that, at certain points, particularly at the ends of long phrases, Matshikiza’s voice would alter from its usual rich clarity and grow slightly throaty, or cloudy, which betrayed, I surmise, a running out of the breath—a bit odd for a professional singer. But I wonder whether she was just—like the rest of the entire population of Leeds that night—suffering from a cold. One other slight criticism might be of Matshikiza’s volume. One can tell she is well suited to opera, since her forte expression was a bit much for those of us in the front row, and her fortissimo sections, few though they were, decidedly cleared my sinuses (quite welcome, actually, given the cold already mentioned). Still, the pair did a fine job of communicating Schumann’s genius for the Lied, and the highlights were the wonderful ode, “Du Ring an meinem Finger”, and the devastatingly dissonant and grieving “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan”, the final dying piano notes of which were truly great, and very moving.
After the interval, the pair played and sang the famous Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. The reduction of the amazing orchestral worlds of these songs to just one piano felt a little bit unsatisfying, until the last, “Im Abendrot”, where much of the effect depends on simplicity, particularly in the closing alternation of bass chords and the imitation of the flight of skylarks in the upper register of the piano (or orchestra). The concert then moved on to a slightly more unusual selection by Reynaldo Hahn, who remains most famous (I think) for being the lover of Marcel Proust, although it seems that his music is being played more and more these days, perhaps for its own sake, or perhaps not. The songs seemed fairly typical nineteenth-century fare—not bad by any means, but not extraordinary—and in their alternation of fast—slow—fast tempi, the three songs made a nice set unto themselves. Their most interesting feature was the use of poems in Venetian dialect; and, of course, for Proust fans such as myself, the connection between these songs and Proust’s own love of Venice, which is recorded in his great novel, was a nice opportunity to reflect on that whole world of Ruskin, Proust, Hahn, and the Venice that connects them. (It also happened to remind me of a little academic essay I once had the curious pleasure of writing on the subject of Proust and Venice.)
However, it was the end of the concert which brought it from the realm of the merely good into that of the spectacular and memorable. Matshikiza put her music stand to the back of the stage, and thence took a microphone in hand in order to address the audience, whereon she introduced the three South African songs with which the programme was to conclude. The first of these, “Thula Baba” was a delightful melody with an accompaniment whose beauty resided in its very simplicity. This, like all the three songs, boasted a lively, dance-like rhythm along with its melodic sweetness, and made a beautiful contrast with the significantly more staid and reflective music in the rest of the programme. The second song was “Malaika”, a sweet little ode that is often sung at weddings in order to bless the new couple. The final song, however, was the most remarkable of the night. Although it has an untranscribable title in its original language—that of the Xhosa people—it is known simply as the “Click Song”, and makes use of the click sound found in the language. This was used to beautiful effect as the click, sounding on the semiquaver after the main beat, created a wonderful syncopation throughout the song.
This was clearly a winning idea, since as Matshikiza and Lepper finished the song and left the stage, the applause was amongst the most uproarious I have heard at any concert, with whoops and yells, whistles, and so forth. The pair came back to the stage for a brief encore—“O mio babbino caro”, beautifully sung, and amusingly prefaced with some very discordant note combinations by Lepper, leading us (by an excellent red herring) to think we would have to endure some awful contemporary pretentiousness for the encore—before leaving the audience to make its way home, repeatedly complimenting with great warmth the inventive end of the concert, as well as its many other delights along the way. A fine concert: I offer my thanks to Matshikiza and Lepper and look forward to their next gracing of Leeds’ stages; and, of course, I extend my thanks to the Howard Assembly Room for yet another fine event.
(Photograph by Decca (Simon Fowler) and provided by Opera North.)
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.