3-5 February 2006
Stephan Loges with Anna Tilbrook
Friday 3rd February, 8.00pm, Great Hall, QUB
Schubert Winterreise D.911
Belfast Music Society Chair Elizabeth Bicker may have introduced this year’s International Festival of Chamber Music with a promise of spring, but it was winter that remained immovable on the first night.
The highly anticipated visit of tenor Michael Schade was cancelled along with Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin cycle due to a lost voice, and a decidedly more chilly Schubert cycle appeared with a last minute replacement, baritone Stephan Loges.
In the event Schubert’s Winterreise was apt. As the BMS audience made its own difficult journey through the Belfast mist to Queen’s Great Hall, the irony of one of the songs, Die Post, wasn’t lost, pitched against the local background of industrial action.
Filling in at such short notice was not an enviable task for the young baritone Stephen Loges. He is an accomplished lieder singer and throughout this cycle there was clarity and vision and a great deal of tender, loving care. But a song cycle so dripping with juvenile melancholia needs a more extreme – a more abandoned – presentation.
Take this song from the settings of Wilhelm Muller’s text for example. The Grey Head: “Again my hair is black/and so I grieve to have my youth/how far still to the funeral bier!”
Firmly set in a tradition of romantic despondency, these words need a lot less respect and a lot more passion. Still, this was an engaging evening at the start of the Belfast Music Society’s excellent weekend of top class events.
Norma Burrowes – A Masterclass
Saturday 4th February, 2.00pm – 5.00pm, Harty Room, QUB
Singers hit the high notes
In the Tony Award winning play Master Class, the central character, Maria Callas, tells singing students that great performers don’t just stand on a stage, they own it. This seems more in line with today’s Pop Idol, Fame Academy and X-Factor programmes than with the study of classical singing.
These days, we seem to be confronted with more and more young people who look for salvation in stardom. In the process they actually bypass the tasks of learning the craft and developing skills, both artistic and personal, that make a true artist. There is no such thing as overnight success and fame does not equal achievement, as anyone who has spent more than five minutes as a performing artist would tell you.
It was more than refreshing, then, to observe the master class given on Saturday by Norma Burrowes as part of the BMS Chamber Music Weekend. As in all master classes, this was a terrific chance to see and hear singers at different stages of their studies being coached by someone with vast experience both as a performer and teacher.
Most importantly, these were singers who had already spent a great deal of time and effort on their singing, in addition to all having good voices and particular talents.
The music of Mozart was on offer, and this gave the afternoon a cohesion that worked very well indeed.
Burrrowes encouraged each singer at the level they were at, in the role each was presenting. For some, the focus was on the voice production, for others, character and stagecraft were emphasised. Most interestingly, you didn’t have to be an opera buff or even particularly keen on singers or singing to appreciate the day.
There was a pleasing element of theatre in the performances, and a little thrill of recognition each time a singer made a genuine difference in their approach to a phrase or gesture. The way in which each student responded to their coaching spoke volumes about their personalities too, and gave a glimpse of the artist within.
This is where there is some interface between what singers in a master class and pop wannabes have to do. The non-musical, non-technical part of their efforts comes into play when the comfort zone is breached and some aspect of the performance scrutinised. The difference between one singer and another is how graciously and effectively they take on board what it is they are being asked to do.
Saturday’s students demonstrated this flexibility to varying degrees. Still, the element of training, so absent in the quick fix stardom offered on the television these days, is what sets most classical singers apart. Even as they hit impossibly high notes or portray great villains or heroines, their feet are firmly on the ground. Their careers involve years of study and hard work, with performances as the milestones by which we in the audience measure their progress. Norma Burrowes, in her summing up of the afternoon’s work touched on this, urging all of us to play our part in nurturing the musical careers of all young singers. After giving the participants in the master class her best musical advice all afternoon, her most important advice was to the audience. She told us to go to the performances of young singers, to support them and the productions they’re involved in. it seems a simple thing, but one which can make all the difference. Our lives are full of distractions and a million reasons to stay in and not make the effort, but that difference is there for us to make.
Saturday 4th February, 8.00pm, Great Hall, QUB
Haydn Sonata in C Major, HOB XVI/50
Schumann Kreisleriana, OP 16
Thomas Adès Traced Overhead (1996)
Schubert Sonata in A Minor, D84
Central to this year’s Belfast Music Society International Festival and contributing over two days was the steady, reassuring presence of pianist Imogen Cooper.
The artist always guarantees a clever mix of classical repertoire and new sounds and this was typically engaging.
Haydn’s Sonata in C Hob XVI/50 and Schubert’s A Minor Sonata D845 were treated with an assured grasp and the familiar bottleneck tones at the start and finish of the programme.
Both were rewarding. But even if Cooper may pride herself on the sturdy structures of her sonata form movements it was the inner two pieces of this recital, fantasies of the emotional and celestial kind by Schumann and Thomas Ades respectively that represented the emotional heart of the evening.
Ades Traced Overhead was written for Cooper ten years ago by a young and unstoppable talent.
The piece remains strong to this day; the colours meaningful and the form-building excellently judged. But what is more impressive now is the ease that Cooper has built with the piece through long and intimate association.
Ades is privileged to have a dedicated and committed advocate who can deliver this piece with such delicacy and understanding.
But best of all were the eight pieces by Robert Schumann that make up his Opus 16, Kriesleriana. More directly emotional than anything else on the programme it also contained the most aphoristic, mysterious and compelling material.
Imogen Cooper was in her element, delivering an introspective but telling account.
Belcea String Quartet with Imogen Cooper
Sunday 5th February, 3.00pm, Great Hall, QUB
Mozart Piano Quartet in E Flat, K 493
Britten String Quartet No. 3
Mozart String Quartet in B Flat, K458
For many, the most rewarding aspect of chamber music recitals is the intimate knowledge gained of performers as much as with the music.
The perennially sold out programme at London’s Wigmore Hall is testament to that, and also to the fact that small scale performance is usually far superior to the orchestral kind.
It’s from the Wigmore Hall in fact that the Belcea String Quartet come, as its recent ensemble in residence.
And its Belfast audiences who will now want to form a relationship with the quartet after the riveting concert that closed the BMS International Festival.
The Belcea is a seriously elegant outfit. Playing with pianist Imogen Cooper at the start of the programme with Mozart’s Piano Quartet in F and at the end with the String Quartet in B flat (The Hunt) the players shone a light into the workings of the music as line, counterpoint, and harmony were writ large and in bold colours.
But this was not the best of it. Having already wowed critics with its recent disc of Benjamin Britten it was inevitable that the great composer’s late Quartet No. 3 would provide the quartet with its most memorable music making on the day.
Memorable and moving, in fact. This was a deep and probing interpretation, courageously conceived and stunningly realised.
It was not only audience members who displayed signs of emotion by the end of the performance. A perfect finale to a rich and engaging 2006 BMS Festival.