Although Schumann’s Dichterliebe was the longest item on the program, “A Poet’s Love” does not fully convey the richness and interest of this recital. As a 2022 Artist in Residence at the Australian National Academy of Music, it was part of Sara Macliver’s brief to assist in the artistic development of ANAM’s pianists as accompanists. The brainchild of Timothy Young, Head of Piano, this initiative was part of a larger project in which pianists will gain accreditation as accompanists – a vital part of the life of so many professional pianists.
For this recital, four young pianists accompanied the renowned soprano in a diverse program of works. When introducing the program, Young spoke about the importance of instrumentalists imitating the human voice – the reciprocal nature of this arrangement being later mentioned by Macliver. Breathing together, shaping a phrase together, finding a sympathetic synergy was what we as listeners were about to hear. Before each group of songs the relevant pianist said a few words regarding what they were about to play. This was generally read from an electronic device with varying degrees of comfort – an aspect of presentation that needs further refinement.
Reuben Jonson gave a spirited account of three short songs by Mozart, following the expressiveness of Macliver’s singing in his playing. He conveyed a strong sense of the story in all pieces, with convincing orchestral sonority in Alma grande e nobil core. In addition to her vibrant, resonant singing, Macliver managed three different languages (German, French and Italian) with professional ease – just within those first three songs.
Matthew Garvie was the associate artist for Dichterliebe, in which Schumann demands as much from the pianist as from the singer. Written for the male voice to poems by the great Heinrich Heine, this song cycle is particularly demanding for a soprano with legendary lightness and agility. The softer, more contemplative songs were an absolute joy in their delicacy and warmth of their execution by both singer and pianist, but the more dramatic songs such as “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome… “ and “Ich grolle nicht…” might have benefiitted from a little more expansive weight. That said, Macliver’s use of chest voice for “ein großes Grab” and Garvie’s poetic concluding passage in the final song were emotionally compelling.
Three of Richard Strauss’s most popular songs were chosen for the bracket with Caleb Salizzo. This was most definitely home territory for Macliver – such beautiful singing! – and gave Salizzo a chance to display his talents as a sensitive accompanist, although Zueignung did seem surprisingly restrained. Perhaps he might have been slightly disconcerted from hearing somebody’s mobile phone ring during those final lingering moments of Morgen! – of all pieces!
The following bracket, comprising two songs by Lili Boulanger and two by her more famous and much-longer-lived sister, Nadia, was an immensely satisfying highlight. They were all performed with expressive sensitivity. The first song, Reflets, was intensely atmospheric. I couldn’t help wondering why Lili Boulanger’s wonderful songs are not more regularly performed. Fortunately, they are to be included in next year’s VCE music performance list, so perhaps that will help give them a wider audience. Nadia Boulanger’s Prière makes demands on both singer and pianist, all of which were met superbly. The forward momentum displayed in this work was extremely impressive.
Because illness prevented the fifth pianist from performing, the final group of three tuneful songs by American composer Ben Moore, it was Timothy Young himself who accompanied these songs. Predictably, he gave a masterclass in pianistic colour, musical pulse and being completely at one with the singer. English translations of all the other songs were provided with the program notes, but it would have been useful to have had the text of these supplied too, especially Elizabeth Bishop’s “I am in need of music” – the other two poems (by James Joyce) were much more straight forward and easier to understand. His “Bright cap and streamers” was an energising way to (almost) end the concert as they were performed with great verve, with Young adding some foot-stamping percussion as accents to the rousing dance rhythms.
As if this astonishing feat of vocal endurance wasn’t enough – think of all those rehearsals within a limited time-frame as well – we were favoured with an encore: “My man’s gone now” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. And Sara Macliver was radiant until the last note – an inspiration to the pianists and sheer delight for the audience.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Sara Macliver: A Poet’s Love”, presented by the Australian national Academy of Music at The Good Shepherd Chapel, Abbotsford on October 28, 2022.