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Performances

Measha Brueggergosman
12 May 2019

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Measha Brueggergosman

 

It wasn’t just the range of what she sang here – which in itself was relatively unusual, even by London’s standards – it was the level of artistry she brought to it. The voice is uncommonly dark for a soprano - it’s almost mahogany in its rich tones – which made some works on the program, such as Ravel’s Shéhérazade, sound like no performance I’ve come across before. On the other hand, when it came to Duparc’s Phidylé we really could have been listening to Wagner (and I didn’t mind that one bit at all). Her John Cage, however, channelled Cathy Berberian. There are clear traces of her Baptist roots in how she communicates and phrases the texts; but the heavier sonorities of Richard Strauss and Puccini give a firmness to the bottom of the register.

Initially I thought Shéhérazade perhaps lacked the eroticism it sometimes needs. Performances of Ravel’s cycle of three songs with an orchestra often allow a singer to establish a greater symbiosis, a more lyrical and expressive intensity – especially with some of the instrumentation such as the woodwind. Brueggergosman eschewed this kind of approach entirely. Right from the outset, ‘Asie, Asie, Asie’ had that meltingly, vivid darkness that she never really deviated from – the tone was like the most over-indulgent chocolate imaginable. It was undeniably voluptuous, much closer to Rimsky-Korsakov than one might imagine. But when the voice ended stanzas, such as at the end of ‘Asie’, the sense of illumination could be ravishing: how this voice can cast a shadow, a long-breathed umber is very striking. ‘L’indifferent’ is often difficult to pull off – and it doesn’t matter if the singer is with an orchestra or pianist – but Brueggergosman brought a palpable sense of androgyny to it. Ironically, her tone felt a touch brighter here – just enough to set up the impression of ambiguity required. It was just a glimpse into the diaphanous colour which would be a hallmark of her Duparc songs.

Some of Debussy’s songs can give the impression he was writing less for the voice and more for an instrument; their complexity – not to say difficulty – can appear very challenging. The opening of ‘La flute de Pan’ is a near-ideal example of this. The opening lines are punishing; the breath control required can sometimes seem insurmountable. If the title suggests a flute, the way Debussy has written for the singer often takes the voice in great arcs of flutist trills. Brueggergosman managed to sustain the long - almost comma-less stanzas – with a clarity of diction which was enormously poised. This was singing of the highest order. ‘Le tombeau des naïades’ didn’t really prove a problem either. The meaning behind the words might be suggestive of winter, ice and the end of an affair but Brueggergosman brought a more positive note to it. Perhaps the season itself – and even the grief that the end of love brings – allowed you to feel she was deeply inside this music. There wasn’t a trace of wobble or tremolo in the voice.

Lepper Jacquie McSweeney.jpgSimon Lepper. Photo credit: Jacquie McSweeney.

Henri Duparc – if Debussy tried to eradicate the influence of Wagner - fully embraced him. One of the most tragic of composers, he destroyed much of his music after he suffered a mental breakdown and ceased composing entirely at the age of 37. It’s a double tragedy because the very few songs that exist – just seventeen of them – are magnificent. Many of them positively drip in romanticism, and a kind of Parnassian nostalgia. Brueggergosman’s rich, plush tones – on the surface – seemed entirely plausible for all three of the songs she chose for this recital. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced ‘Chanson triste’ really delved deeply enough into the soul of this music. There is a fine balance between hope and despair here – and it felt just a little too safe. ‘L’invitation au voyage’ can sometimes trip singers up – do they focus on the geography of the text, which turns the song into an early example of Impressionism with its evocation of watery landscapes – or do they focus on Duparc’s ambiguity which stems from him shrouding the music in mystery over rhythms that are all too often unstable? Again, one didn’t really feel absolutely convinced which way Brueggergosman had landed this song either – though there was no denying the voluptuous tone she brought it.

On the other hand, when it came to Phidylé Brueggergosman knew exactly what she wanted. From the opening piano chords – almost like tolling bells – the voice had incredible range – it sometimes felt somnolent, the colour and dynamic range were painted with the broadest of strokes; often this reminded me of Wagner’s Isolde, especially as the voice moves in an ecstatic curve of languid tranquillity to its final, floating climax.

If the first half of this recital had been all about French music – and the influence in song of exoticism, expressionism, impressionism and chromaticism – then the second half was about modernism, jazz, rhythm and cabaret. John Cage might never really have cared profoundly about melody in much of his music but it’s perhaps a touch ironic that for his song, ‘The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs’ he chose as the text for it one of the most lyrical of modernist and experimental books of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. It’s easy to see why this book might have appealed to Cage – the very subtext of it, with its immersion into a world of stream of consciousness, and a format which completely deconstructs the nature of sentences, paragraphs and the very use of punctuation itself would seem attractive to a composer hellbent on embracing a radical aesthetic in his own music.

The song itself is based on a single passage of Joyce’s book – on page 556 – and the text of the song is published in upper-case though Cage abandons Joyce’s zero punctuation and inserts various commas and ellipsis. This does lead one to assume that perhaps the delivery of the song is very specifically aimed at a certain volume and pitch, but this isn’t the case - it’s actually composed in three pitches. Despite how it looks on the page, what you get in recital – or what Brueggergosman gave us – is largely a song that resembles modernist plainchant, almost sung in a single vocal register and which doesn’t deviate too much in volume.

What is, of course, unusual about this song is that the piano is played closed. The pianist taps his fingers against the keyboard lid, uses his knuckles against the wood – and basically establishes the rhythm which sets the momentum of the song. I don’t think one could have asked for a more incisive, or better judged performance, of the piano part than the one we received from Simon Lepper here. Cage asks us questions in ‘The Wonderful Widow of the Eighteen Springs’ – what is a song? Who sets the rhythm? What is the nature of music itself? It was certainly wonderful to hear it again in London.

Xavier Montsalvatge, in his Cinco canciones negras, changed the direction of the recital rather completely. These Spanish-accented songs, although written from the perspective of a Caribbean setting, and just after the end of the Second World War, can seem emotionally brutal. In terms of subject matter, they don’t really hold much back about American imperialism pre-Castro in Cuba; musically they can seem rather brutal as well. Brueggergosman brought real Cubanesque grit to all of these songs - and the sultriness was both oppressive and evocative. The brutality of these songs isn’t in the idiomatic writing of the music – rather, it’s in the sheer virtuosity required to sing them. Being able to establish the setting is one thing – but one was left somewhat reeling by the effortless speed with which Brueggergosman took ‘Punto de Habanero’. In ‘Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito’ it was both the lilting motion to the voice and the slithering tongue work which so impressed. ‘Canto negro’ was a tour de force – a song which Brueggergosman not only sang with such impeccable diction but which she managed to pull off at a tempo like a bullet-train.

William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs set a very different tone, but were no less remarkable for that. The songs are, in fact, a rather sublime balance of contrasts – often within the same piece. They can be both light-hearted, but seem tragic – they can seem trivial, but really quite sophisticated. It’s easy for a singer to strike a poor balance but Brueggergosman is not one to do that. I think she took much of her cue from the jazzy piano writing – so wonderfully captured by Simon Lepper – and this was especially the case in ‘The total stranger in the garden’. The clarity of her phrasing, the way in which she takes whole paragraphs is so natural you often find yourself not needing to look at the texts at all. ‘Song of Black Max’ is comparatively long – but almost every word was audible. It was a hallmark of Brueggergosman’s recital which was apparent no matter which language she sang in.

Recitals are, of course, a partnership and the pianist for this one, Simon Lepper offered the highest quality playing for Measha Brueggergosman. A recital of this breadth offers challenges for any pianist, but Lepper was never less than impressive in giving each composer a distinctive voice. Perhaps his Duparc most stood out during the first half – the tone was beautiful, those gorgeous chromatic passages highly evocative. Here is a pianist who also brings such colour to what he plays; some of the Ravel was immeasurably exotic, his Debussy floated off the staves and yet he brought an innate sense of understanding to jazz rhythms in music like Bolcom’s and Cuban dash to the Barcelonan music. It would have been easy to have made some of the dissonance in Montsalvatge’s songs emphatically over-edgy but he managed to not do that. His Cage was hypnotic, and despite the fact he probably tried not to draw attention himself I think the reverse might have proven the case – which is perhaps what Cage was rather menacingly, and thought provokingly, driving at in the question about ‘What is a song’?

This was a completely memorable song recital.

Marc Bridle

Measha Brueggergosman (soprano), Simon Lepper (piano)

Ravel – Shéhérazade; Debussy – Chansons de Bilitis, Duparc – Three Songs; Cage – ‘The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs’; Montsalvatge – Cinco canciones Negras; Bolcom – Cabaret Songs.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; 8th May 2019.

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