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Brilliant Young International Musicians in Saint Peter’s church, Marlborough - A Schubertiade for a Summer's Evening

American soprano Leigh Michelow and pianist Henry SeamanAmerican soprano Leigh Michelow and pianist Henry Seaman

 

The latest concert in the St Peter’s series was unusual in that it featured voice and piano for the first time.  The concert was a selection of Schubert songs, hence a ‘Schubertiade,’ sung by the American soprano, Leigh Michelow, accompanied on the piano by Henry Seaman.  

 

Leigh graduated from the Eastman School of Music in New York in 2010 before coming to Europe where she continued her studies with Barbara Bonney at the Universitat Mozarteum in Salzburg.  She has also held a scholarship  at the Heidelberger Fruhling Lied Academie.  Her accompanist, Henry Seaman, is another American.  Growing up  in New Mexico, he studied at Amherst College, the liberal arts college in Massachusetts,  and then at the Mozarteum in Salzburg where he has worked as a repetiteur since 1978. 

Schubert is acclaimed as the greatest song writer who ever lived.  He wrote his first song at the age of 17, and in the mere 14 years before his premature death aged 31, he wrote some 600 songs, part songs and other vocal works.  Nobody has ever delved so deeply into the recesses of human emotion or  developed the genius of capturing the emotional and spiritual essence of verse provided by a huge range of writers.  

 

However it is the music, both for the soloist and the accompanist that is so memorable; the words but of secondary importance.  Schubert pioneered a  new musical genre which deeply influenced later German  composers such as Wolf, Brahms and Schumann and has remained a popular musical form ever since. 

Putting on a Schubert evening is a real challenge.  It would be easy to include one or other of the great song cycles such as Die Schone Mullerin, thus providing a ready-made structure.  Tonight, though, to  give this recital some coherence our two artists had assembled a range of songs which fitted into three themes.  In the first half there were songs with ‘water’ as a theme along with a ‘young man’s innocent and awakening eye to love.’  In the second half the theme shifted  to a ‘female perspective on nature and on love’.  Within these themes we heard  songs expressing a world of different emotions, some sad, some joyous, some contemplative and even spiritual. Without being over-demonstrative Leigh successfully explored this diversity with a range of musical and emotional interpretations. 

In the first half there was plenty of babbling water from the piano; the highlight possibly being Auf der Wasser zu Singen, (To be sung on the water).  The waves of joy felt by the poet are reflected in the  glorious sparkling light of an evening’s boat ride on the water; a memorable and very familiar song renowned for its magnificent cascading piano accompaniment.  This had been preceded by Der blinde Knabe, (The blind boy).  This was sung with all the affirmation  of a young blind boy who is content with the inner light he experiences, admirably expressed in the radiance of Leigh’s interpretation.  The accompaniment includes a halting rhythm; the uncertain tap of the blind  boy’s stick? Here is yet more evidence of Schubert’s boundless imagination.  The ‘water theme’ continued with  Des Fishers Liebesgluck (The loving fisherman’s bliss).  Here the lovers float gently downstream in the gathering mist and fading light of a summer’s evening. Leigh’s interpretation was gentle and wistful , while the clarity and precision of an octave leap that occurs in each of the verses was masterful.  There was the turbulent emotion of In Freien, (In the open)before Leigh finished the first half with ‘Bei dir Allein!’ (With you alone).  Here was the joyous evocation of young love, sung with exuberance and radiant joy; a very suitable end to the first half. 

The second half included two wonderful songs, called Zuleika I and II, the texts taken from Goethe’s ‘West-Easterly Divan’ inspired by his  admiration for the 14thcentury Persian poet, Hafez.  Goethe’s  Divan is an ‘Oriental Masquerade’ alternating a wide range of opposites, based partly on his love for Marianne von Willemer.  She lived in Frankfurt (west) and he in Weimar (east).  Suleika IIrelates to the west wind hastening to the  beloved with assurances of  love and which fill the beloved with joyful feelings. Zulieka Idescribes the east wind, hot  and dusty,  but bringing news of the beloved.  The wind may blow past, but it brings the heart’s true tidings from the lover’s  mouth alone.  Two very different interpretations of the lover’s yearning which Leigh sensitively interpreted.  Then came two songs which included chiming bells in the accompaniment. In the first, Die Jonge Nonne, (The young nun).

 

Now  on her deathbed a young nun has found peace and eagerly awaits with joy  her imminent union with the heavenly bridegroom.  With the abbey bell tolling in the accompaniment Leigh ‘s eyes shone as she sang the joyous climactic Alleluyas with which the song finishes.  Bells featured in the next song as well.  This time it was the Das Zugenglocklein (The passing bell), an Austrian  tradition where the ringing of a church bell  summons  the faithful to pray for a person in the community approaching death.  Both text and music are quizzical rather than sombre as the poet contemplates who the dying person might be.  The recital ended with one of Schubert’s finest songs, In Abendrot (In the glow of evening).  As a glorious sunset envelopes the sky the poet affirms his faith in God.  With such a majestic display how could the poet possibly doubt his Faith?  The poet states ‘losing faith in You would be a loss of faith in myself.’  Leigh’s radiant and convincing performance  encapsulated the spirituality of this song. 

 It was a wonderful evening, full of contrast.  Leigh has a clear and pure voice ideally suited to the ‘innocence’ and conviction of some of these songs. She has an unostentatious manner, allowing the music to speak for itself with a minimum of gesture, limited largely to  effective facial and hand expressions. It was the  management of her dynamic range and her intelligent awareness of  a song’s mood that captivated the audience. Schubert’s imaginative accompaniments were sensitively played, but were never allowed to get in the way of the soloist. This was ample evidence of the wonderful empathy between the two musicians, who, together, provided us with a memorable evening’s music.

 

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