VISI: Songfire 2013

Vancouver International Song Institute:
Song Fire Festival
Let the Florid Music Praise

Featured Performers Martha Guth, soprano, and Graham Johnson, piano

Date and Venue 15 June 2013, 8pm | Roy Barnet Hall, UBC

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

A magnificent recital was held on Saturday evening at Roy Barnett Hall. Martha Guth, soprano, has a strong stage presence more than matched by an equally strong and technically superb voice.

The program featured in its first half song inspired by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and specifically the character of Mignon, the lost girl, which so caught the imagination of European literature and art. The selection of settings by Schubert and Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky wound around a single theme nicely compared the styles and approaches of each composer.

The opening lied, Schubert’s affecting setting of “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt“, at once established the standard for the evening, passion and intensity, grandeur and longing carried on a powerful, golden voice. Despite the excellence of what followed, this was perhaps the highlight of the first half for its perfect fusion of text, music and performance.  Martha Guth moved from Schubert’s intensity, through Wolf’s chromatic angst to deep Russian passion with the utmost ease. A singer with beautiful phrasing and extraordinary breath control, she imbued each of the two dozen songs with with its own intense drama.

Particularly interesting were two more very different settings of “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt“ by Hugo Wolf and Tchaikovsky, the latter also familiar as "None but the lonely heart" as well as two settings of "Kennst du das Land?" by Schubert and Wolf.  

The second half of the programme entered the constrained but no less intense period of the 20th century, being devoted to Benjamin Britten. Again the choice of songs explored very particular ideas, Britten’s interpretation of the music of Henry Purcell and of the poetry of W.H. Auden, as well as Britten’s mastery at word setting, learned from Purcell

Britten set five songs from Auden’s verse cycle On This Island and these were alternated with six of his piano transcriptions of Purcell’s settings of contemporary poets. Auden’s critical views of English society contrast strongly with the texts that Purcell, sometimes court composer, set, though the topics remain constant: the state of love, the state of the nation, and, more restfully, the sea and night.

Martha Guth slipped between the 17th century and the 20th with consummate ease and refinement, every note and every word clear and precise.

VISI being a teaching institute it was only fitting that a chorus of students sang the “Sailor’s Chorus“ from Dido and Aeneas. Baritone Samuel Chan sang Purcell’s "Take not a woman’s anger ill“ with velvet tones and a cheerily caddish demeanour.

No singer, however skilled, can completely succeed without an equally skilled pianist. Graham Johnson is an exceptionally able collaborative pianist with an apparently infinite variety of touch and subtle pedalling. Between the two there seemed to exist an absolute trust and a completely shared approach to the music. VISI awarded this year’s prize for services to music to Graham Johnson, a prize this concert showed he richly deserves.

© 2013 Elizabeth Paterson