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Susan Bullock [Photo by Anne-Marie Le Blé courtesy of HarrisonParrott]
19 Dec 2010

Susan Bullock, Wigmore Hall

It may have been five years since Susan Bullock last performed at the Wigmore Hall, as her prominence on the world operatic stage has taken her away from the recital hall, but she wasted no time getting into her stride in this charming and musically varied concert.

Susan Bullock, Wigmore Hall

Susan Bullock, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Monday 13th December 2010

Above: Susan Bullock [Photo by Anne-Marie Le Blé courtesy of HarrisonParrott]


Performing works by diverse composers hailing from many countries, Bullock reminded us of her imposing and engaging stage presence, and that her musical and dramatic talents are just as suited to interpreting the song repertoire as to embodying the Wagnerian and Straussian heroines who have made her name of late.

Bullock and her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, constructed a thoughtful programme containing many unfamiliar and intriguing offerings. ‘Banquo’s Buried’ by Australian composer, Alison Bauld, made a striking opening to the second half of the recital. Drawn from her ballad opera, Nelland, which comprises a series of what Bauld terms ‘dramatic scenas’ based on texts from Shakespeare’s plays, this piece revealed the composer’s sure theatrical instincts. Not surprisingly, Bullock relished the dramatic tension and operatic gestures. Bauld has commented on the origins of this setting of text from Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene, which owes to the “memory of a powerful and idiosyncratic performance of the role by Sybil Thorndike. The manner was operatic and perhaps, even then, unfashionable, but there was a ‘go-for-broke’ spirit which made sense of the tragedy. The piece was conceived for all sopranos who enjoy a sense of theatre.” One cannot imagine a soprano better suited to the role than Bullock.

From Australia to France, and four songs by Henri Duparc. ‘Au pays où se fait la guerre’ (‘To the land where there is war’) is all that remains of Duparc’s long-held, and regretfully abandoned, ambitions for an opera based on Pushkin’s Rusalka. With its juxtaposition of expansive lyrical melody and recitative, the song combines traits of the operatic scena and French mélodie; Bullock effectively conveyed the dramatic heights of the closing section as the poet-speaker hopes to conquer the embracing darkness, sustained by “so many kisses and so much love/ that perhaps I shall be healed”.

Then, home to England, with Warlock, Bridge and Quilter all represented. Bullock’s diction was consistently clear in each of the languages she explored, but particularly so in Quilter’s rhapsodic ‘Fair house of joy’ and plaintive ‘Autumn evening’; in the latter, Martineau’s melancholy prelude compellingly haunted the song, before returning in full in the affecting, elegiac postlude.

Indeed, Martineau was a superb accompanist to Bullock’s dramatic presentations. Supportive and thoughtful, he enjoyed the piano’s own musical narratives, effectively entering the drama but never overwhelming the voice, as in the contrapuntal interweavings of the third stanza of Duparc’s ‘Chanson triste’ (‘Song of sadness’): “You will rest my poor head,/ ah! sometimes on your lap,/ and recite to it a ballad/ that will seem to speak of us.” Particularly touching was Martineau’s communication of harmonic nuance which intimated feeling and meaning, subtly but persuasively, as in Duparc’s ‘Romance de Mignon’ and, especially in Warlock’s ‘Pretty ring time’, an idiomatic setting of Shakespeare’s ‘It was a lover and her lass’. Moreover, in the composer’s freely structured ‘Phidylé’, it was the piano’s melodic refrain, rhythmic control and harmonic sureness, as the song passed through a myriad of tonal centres, that provided coherence through the emotional extremes.

It was however in the first half of the recital, with the songs by Grieg, Rimsky Korsakov and Brahms, that Bullock’s vocal control and relaxed confidence were most on display. Throughout these songs she used her strong, ample voice with sensitivity and restraint, only unleashing its full power in moments of real intensity and preferring to convey meaning through colour and the exuberance of her personality. Grieg’s ‘Sechs Lieder Op.48’ were dedicated to the Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson who, like Bullock, was a prominent performer in Wagnerian roles. ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ (‘One day, my thoughts’) is complex both formally and harmonically, and the performers were perfectly united in their reading of the rich harmonic colourings of the song, framed as they are by the reflective stillness of the piano’s opening bars and the simple octave falls of the close. In contrast, ‘Lauf der Welt’ (‘The way of the world’) possesses a folksy energy and insouciance, and voice and accompanist coordinated delightfully throughout, playfully enjoying the rhythmic flexibilities. Bullock’s fresh open sound and unaffected shaping of the poetic phrases was outstanding in ‘Die verschwiegene Nachtigall’ (‘The secretive nightingale’) and ‘Ein Traum’ (‘A dream’) was characterised by a focused tone of real warmth and depth; while Martineau’s subtle syncopations endowed ‘Zur Rosenzelt’ (‘Time of roses’) with a suitably understated intensity and urgency, the delayed final cadence being particularly affecting.

Three songs by Rimsky Korsakov followed, moving from the lament-like shadows of ‘Na kholmakh Gruzii’ (‘The hills of Georgia’), with its ponderous piano pedals, to the explosive exuberance of ‘Zvonvhe zhavoronka penye’ (‘The lark sings louder’). But it was in six songs by Brahms that the real power and precision of Bullock’s voice became wonderfully evident. Both performers shaped the extreme contrasts within ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ Op.63 No.5 (‘My love is green’) with consummate skill and sensitivity; Martineau relished the rhythmic complexities of ‘Simmer leiser wird mein Schlummer’ Op.105 No.2 (‘My sleep grows ever quieter’) while Bullock opened her voice to its expressive heights in the final cry, “If you would see me once again,/ come soon, some soon!” The control of dramatic tension in ‘O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück’ Op. 63 No.8 (‘Ah! if I but knew the way back’) was outstanding: and, as the poet-speaker longs to regain his childhood’s vision – “not to see the times change,/ to be a child a second time” – Bullock’s lyricism was heart-melting. The gentle, easeful fluency of ‘Wir wandelten’ Op.96 No.2 (‘We were walking’) contrasted with the infectious vivacity of ‘Das Mädchen spricht’ Op. 107 No.3 (‘The maiden speaks’), whose sprightly, springing rhythms brought the first half of the recital to such a vibrant close.

The chilling evening frost and the lure of Christmas shopping may have accounted for the rather reduced audience numbers, but this was a real treat and one hopes that another five years do not pass before Bullock returns to the Wigmore Hall stage.

Claire Seymour

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