Review: Lesser-known songs, ‘concentrated perfection’

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WITH a title like “Yes, but do you know…?”, it was somewhat inevitable that in introducing the program, soprano Sarahlouise Owens should add the words, “well may you ask.”

Soprano Sarahlouise Owens
Soprano Sarahlouise Owens

For in reality this diverting concert was conceived when Owens and the veteran pianist Colleen Rae-Gerrard got talking about works for voice and piano that were rarely heard.

When they knew they could easily bring in Rae-Gerrard’s forte piano, affectionately nicknamed Constanze, (presumably after Mozart’s wife), the pair decided to try and approximate the sound originally sought by composers like Haydn and Mozart.

The concert began modestly with two evocative songs by Mozart, performed with some restraint by Owens. But she really got going in Haydn’s passionate cantata “Arianna a Naxos”, especially in the recitative and dramatic aria sections. Here it was clear that Owens is at her best expressing the stronger feelings of drama and opera.

There followed two simple but beautiful songs by Canberra composer Calvin Bowman, the second of which, “The Early Morning,” was dedicated by Bowman to Rae-Gerrard’s late husband Michael Grafton- Green.

Both artists captured the unique mix of regret and optimism in three lieder by Erich Korngold, completing the first half of the concert with seven Moravians folk songs by Martinu described by Owens as “like jewels – concentrated perfection.”

The second and more ambitious second half of this program began with a series of extrapolations from Goethe’s famous novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, focusing on the tragic girl Mignon.

The opening part of this segment consisted of Schubert’s ‘Mignon’ songs performed on Constanze and beginning with the celebrated song “Kennst du das Land” (Do you know the land?) Where the buck abducted girl expresses her wish to run away. Owens rose to the expressiveness of Schubert in the songs, which were succeeded by a lesser-known version of “Kennst du das Land” and concluding with a passionate rendition by Owens of French composer Henri du Parc’s “Romance de Mignon (Do you know the land).

The most intriguing part of the concert intellectually was the performance of three early songs by Benjamin Britten, which ranged from playful cheekiness to a brooding quality. Here the deceptive economy of Britten’s composition for the accompanist was beautifully captured by Rae-Gerrard.

The final part of the recital saw an intense performance of Berlioz’s “Mort d’Ophelie”, inspired by Shakespeare, and two songs by Verdi’s mentor, Saverio Mercandate. In the final piece, unfamiliar to most, Owens took on the role of an insinuating Spanish fortune-teller, once again whipping up the performance to operatic heights.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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