THE ‘SONGFIRE’ FESTIVAL: THE POWER AND ENGAGEMENT OF ART SONG
Martha Guth, soprano; Tyler Duncan, baritone; Graham Johnson and Erika Switzer, accompanists: Roy Barnett Recital Hall, UBC; June 24, 2016
The Vancouver International Song Institute (VISI) provided us with a real treat in their current two-week long mix of master classes and performances. Featured was one of the greatest accompanists of them all, Graham Johnson, who joined Canadian star soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. Each instructed for 6 days. A fine range of genres were studied, there were daily concerts with VISI students, and two big concerts, the first of which – a ‘Schubertiade’ – I discuss here. VISI has its home at the University of British Columbia, and all activities took place under the auspices of UBC’s School of Music. The institute was originally founded by current UBC faculty member, pianist Rena Sharon, and voice teacher Ingrid Suderman.
Graham Johnson has appeared with VISI in previous years with The Songmaker’s Almanac. Given the great recorded monument he presided over – The Complete Schubert Songs for Hyperion – a Schubert recital had to be irresistible. The pianist offered extensive ‘living’ programme notes (as he termed them) on these wonderful Shiller settings of hope, strength and determination. Indeed symbolic and apt given the Brexit decision the day before, and Johnson noted the even greater need now for music to transcend international boundaries. He noted that ‘no country owns Schubert’, yet now we see decisions that might restrict the free-flow of artists and song throughout Europe and to and from the UK in particular. Johnson shared the accompanying duties with the young and talented Erika Switzer; the two distinguished young Canadian vocalists were baritone Tyler Duncan and soprano Martha Guth. Duncan has made recent opera appearances at the Met but has recorded principally in Baroque repertoire. Guth won the 2007 Wigmore Hall International Song Competition, and ranges from the Baroque and Mozart to the cutting-edge modern. Both have often collaborated with Erika Switzer.
One could hardly help but be impressed with Tyler Duncan’s rich, strong vocal fabric and Graham Johnson’s sheer mastery in the opening ‘Sehnsucht’ and ‘Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands’. Both songs moved beautifully, with particularly sensitive structuring. Duncan keeps his musical line very well, does not shy from story-telling, and can move as easily to heartfelt vulnerability as heroic determination. For all the richness in his fabric, there is a purity and naturalness in his singing, and ample lyrical command too. Graham Johnson savoured every note of Schubert’s writing, finding power, suspension and a quiet stillness in equal measure.
At 23 minutes, the massive ballad/ melodrama ‘Der Taucher’ is a real test of any singer’s strength and endurance and Duncan came through magnificently, capturing the full power of the work. His articulation of the speech rhythms was admirable and he brought noble determination and feeling elsewhere. His vocal flexibility was always on display -- with a fine sense of architecture too -- and it was only at a few points that the burnished weight of his tone might have slowed down the music’s natural motion. Erika Switzer was the accompanist here, wonderfully conscientious in her part, and fully up to the virtuosity of the more dramatic passages. My only qualification might be that the linear drive in her playing could be relaxed occasionally -- to find a more coaxing Schubertian ebb-and-flow and greater expressive space.
I probably warmed less to Erika Guth’s dramatic and emotional intensity in her seven songs. The best of the three with Switzer accompanying was ‘Der Mädchen aus der Fremde’ which had a fine sense of natural relaxation and admirable dynamic control. ‘Der Flutchling’ seemed to push out to excessive emphasis, making the lyrical line somewhat jagged and short, while ‘Thekla’ also needed more refined shaping. Of the four songs with Graham Johnson, I found the restrained intimacy and subtle dynamics in ‘Das Mädchens Klage’ the most enticing; the degree of characterization in ‘Das Geheimnis’ was also noteworthy. ‘Der Pilgrim’ and ‘An den Frühling’ certainly did not lack for emotional commitment; however, I thought the soprano occasionally lacked poise and an exact control of phrasing and dynamics. In general, Guth gave evidence of her enviable vocal strength and dramatic power without always finding true Schubertian flow, lyrical shape and dynamic shading.
I received immense delight from seeing these soloists and accompanists present this little ‘Schubertiade’, a true testimony to an enterprising two full weeks of study and performance in the ‘Songfire’ Festival.
© Geoffrey Newman 2016