Taking the lied and mounting roses

Donna Balson (piano) and Jill Sullivan (mezzo-soprano). Photo: Len Power.

Music / “The time of roses”. At the Wesley Music Center, October 16. Reviewed by DANTE COSTA.

ART Song Canberra’s ‘The Time of Roses’ was presented by mezzo-soprano Jill Sullivan and pianist Donna Balson who explored the blossoming of romantic lied.

The duo took the audience adrift with divine sonorities, while following the evolution of the lied over the years through the works of various composers. Throughout the cleverly curated program, roses served as a motif in a story that symbolized the cycle of human life and a range of emotions from love and excitement to heartbreak and sadness.

Opening with Beethoven’s “Adelaide Op.46”, the presence of Sullivan and Balson immediately lit up the room. The piece was well balanced and subtle, which demonstrated a high degree of musicality by the duo. Then come “Im Tiebhaus” and “Traüme” by Wagner, which offer a heavier and more solemn atmosphere. Sullivan’s subtle inflections evoked the emotional nature of music and notions of being overwhelmed by the intoxicating power of love and the desire for something unattainable.

Inspired by an old Irish folk song, Mendelssohn’s “Fantasy in E Major – The Last Rose of Summer” was performed for solo piano. Balson’s playing was incredibly sensitive and tender, which painted the image of a lonely rose, nearing the end of its life in the summer heat. The notes flew effortlessly under his fingers as the sparsely ornate melody developed into a theme and variation – or rather what Balson suggested as “improvisation and response”.

The combination of the following pieces into a single homogeneous work was a set of five songs by Brahms. A mixture of giddy and innocent short works such as “Botschaft Op.47, No.1”, “O komme holder Sommernacht Op.58, No.4” and “Meine Liebe ist Grün Op.63, No.5” woven together work their way around more poignant and plaintive pieces such as “Sapphisches Ode Op.94, No.4” and “Immer leise wird mein Schlummer Op.105, No.2”.

After an intermission, the duo returned to the stage with various magical and ephemeral works by Greig, Mahler and Strauß. Balson then presented another arrangement of “The Last Rose of Summer”, this time by English composer Benjamin Britten. Moving away from the romantic theme of the German Lieder, this piece was a welcome nuanced gem in the program. Although it conveys an affection of loneliness and isolation, the music could not have been more colorful as Balson expressed the rich harmonies on the piano. She moved with such grace and command of her instrument that the music made its way effortlessly through the room.

The last pieces of the concert were a set of 7 compositions by Sibelius; “Flickan kom I frän Op.37, No.5”, “Illale Op.17, No.6”, “Kom nu hit, Död Op.60, No.1”, “De bägge rosorna Op.88, No. 2″, “Norden Op.90, No.1”, “Diamanten på marssnon Op.90, No.6”, and “Svartor rosor Op.36, No.1”. Rarely interpreted for the benefit of a French repertoire, German and Italian more fluent, these works in Swedish and Finnish were truly breathtaking.Sullivan’s singing showed incredible variety and dynamic expression that showcased the range of emotions illustrated in the poems. Its soft and suave lower register was complemented by the light arpeggiated lines of Balson on the piano.The sweep of the enthusiasm and innocence of a young love to the notion of intense grief were conveyed convincingly by the two musicians.

Concluding with a seemingly livelier encore piece, Sullivan and Balson presented a wonderfully curated program that showcased the flourish of romantic lied intertwined with appropriate imagery of roses and nature. All in all, it was a performance that was both compelling and enjoyable.

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Ian Meikle, editor