For her debut recital in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Siobhan Stagg was joined by pianist Timothy Young in a recital that further consolidated their reputation as international stars.
In his introductory remarks, Marshall McGuire, Director of Programming at the MRC, announced that they had already performed this program – the “essence of Art Song” at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, where Stagg is based. The rapport between singer and pianist displayed in this Melbourne concert, featuring works by Henri Duparc and Olivier Messiaen, stemmed from their long artistic association and an alert musical intelligence.
Of the mere 16 surviving mélodies completed by Duparc, six were chosen – some of which had been heard a few days earlier during Michael Fabiano’s recital. Each singer brings something different to these “small but exquisite” gems. What Siobhan Stagg brought was her luscious resonant voice with its beguilingly distinctive timbre, astonishing breath control and a transfixing presence that embodied every note. Excellent intonation, a vibrato that never intruded but rather facilitated colour and life, were combined with facial expressions and sparing gestures that reflected the text so tellingly that many listeners would have preferred simply to watch her rather than follow the text and translations in the program. From the outset, with “Le manoir de Rosemonde” she was riveting, the soft, slow ending wonderfully atmospheric. “Extase” was simply magical – dreamlike, and ending with the softest sustained pianissimo. It was a time-stood-still moment. Then came a tender, flowing “Chanson triste” and, finally “La vie antérieure” – at once intimate and voluptuous. Timothy Young was the perfect accompanist for this heady alchemy.
Replacing the Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées featured in the Berlin concert (and I hope we do get to hear these in the near future) was the Australian première of This Be Her Verse. Commissioned by South African soprano Golda Schulz and pianist Timothy Ware for their album of songs by women, librettist Lila Palmer and composer Kathleen Tagg used personal stories in an attempt, as Palmer explains, “to correct women’s erasure from the song tradition”. The three songs required a different piano to be brought on stage. Timothy Young explained some of the special effects created by a scarf and a gold-plated chain placed inside the piano, and the strategic use of the middle sustain pedal. The first song, “After Philip Larkin” began with the left hand thudding a rhythm while the right hand strummed the strings, harp-like. “Wedding” followed with a tango rhythm and dramatic melismatic emphasis on the word “waiting” in “You will always be waiting/Waiting for him/to catch up”. Stagg was terrific as the indignant bride furious at being kept waiting by the tardy groom. The final, melodic song “ Single bed” concluded on an emphatic note of defiance. They are powerful expressions of women railing against injustice, and an ideal vehicle for a soprano with the dramatic and vocal talents of Siobhan Stagg. They are also a lot of fun in their wit, bite and musical playfulness.
Men might overshadow women as famous composers, but many of them honour women in significant ways. Messiaen composed his song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (1936) as a gift for his first wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, whom he called Mi. Comprising nine songs, this thirty-minute work demands the highest artistic skill from both singer and pianist. Young has long been regarded as a Messiaen expert (think of his phenomenal playing in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with the Australian World Orchestra), and listeners were equally bowled over by the formidable technical skill and artistry shown by both performers last night. When it comes to rapturous singing: Stagg has just what it takes. All those exceptional qualities displayed in the first half of the program made the second half a memorable occasion. The Alleluias that concluded the opening “Action des graces” were ethereal, distantly angelic against a tinkling piano until the final climactic crescendo. Blue light bathed the stage, in tune with her blue dress and the text of “Paysage” with its repeated “bijou bleue” (blue jewel). The final long, fading note of “La Maison” was luminous indeed – exactly reflecting the text. “Épouvante” certainly had its terrifying moments, the repeated “Ha” encompassing a vast range of colour, including the harsh and biting, making the serenity of “L’épouse” even more striking. That spot on high “gloire” of “Ta voix”, the drama of “Les deux guerriers” and the devout prayerfulness of the final piece… it seemed like a succession of musical revelations. What a gift!
The encore following this superb recital encapsulated important elements of the occasion. Both artists have enjoyed highly successful international careers – a situation made even more challenging in recent years by the pandemic with its plethora of cancellations. Commissioned by Stagg, and written expressly for her unique attributes, Dermot Tutty’s Listen was conceived, recorded and released during lockdown. We were once again held spellbound as we listened to words that spoke of the vital act of sharing music with an audience in a shared space. It is a simple, melodic work in which silence punctuates the narrative and homes in on that special moment of silence between a performance ending and applause erupting.
And there was plenty of applause last night; a standing ovation greeted the end of Messiaen’s transcendent work. It was an audience not only acknowledging a performance of artistic distinction from soprano and pianist alike, but also the warmest welcome home for Siobhan Stagg, who, in Tutty’s words, “From Melbourne to Berlin [had, like us, been] crying for music to return” to “All the halls and theatres”.
Heather Leviston reviewed the recital given by Siobhan Stagg and Timothy Young as part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s International Classics 2023 at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on February 20, 2023.