Elena Xanthoudakis Sings Rare Romantic Lieder with Jason Xanthoudakis, Clarinet and Clemens Leske, Piano
Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music: 24 March, 2012
The Trio plays again in Melbourne at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon at 6 PM on 31 March.
Johann Baptist Wenzel Kalliwoda – Heimathlied
Conradin Kreutzer – Das Mühlrad
Franz Lachner – Seit ich ihn gesehen and Er, der Herrlichste von allen from Frauenliebe und -leben
Johann Baptist Wenzel Kalliwoda – Der Sennin Heimweh
Franz Schubert – Romanze (Helen’s air from Die Verschworenen) and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen
Robert Schumann – Drei Fantasiestücke
Heinrich Proch – Schweitzers Heimweh and Die gefangene Nachtigall
Johann Sobeck – Meine Heimat
Peter von Lindtpainter – Der Hirt und das Meerweib
Elena Xanthoudakis – soprano
Jason Xanthoudakis – clarinet
Clemens Leske – piano
With an impressive list of singing competition wins and opera roles, not least her brilliant Eurydice and Sibyl in the Pinchgut Opera’s production of Haydn’s opera of the Orpheus myth L’anima del Filosofo in 2010, Elena Xanthoudakis is now directing her energies toward researching and rediscovering Romantic Lieder written for trio, here soprano, clarinet, and piano, and she is doing done so in style with a definite passion for the genre, which is fitting to the original spirit of the music. The trio have recorded a CD called “The Shepherd and the Mermaid” of some of their finds (which I haven’t yet heard) and here perform the songs on it, including parts of Franz Lachner’s version of von Chamisso’s Frauenliebe und -leben cycle better known perhaps in the Schumann version and perhaps even the Loewe version. They are also publishing these pieces in print under the Kroma Editions name so all can have the opportunity to play them, obviously many of these are not on the usual free sheet music sites on the ‘net, having had to be dug out of libraries in London and Vienna, and some (according to Xanthoudakis) have never been recorded.
It’s unfair to dismiss the songs as sentimental, if it is that which has kept them from being played for the last century. They touch a much deeper flow in the human psyche than anything merely sentimental and stand very nicely next to the better known Schubert songs, either in contrast of compositional approach or in sympathy of spirit. The thoroughness of Xanthoudakis’ project (she even provided the translations in the program herself) in assembling the chamber group TrioKROMA, performing, recording and printing the songs, promises to make prophetic her words that they will ‘soon become concert hall favorites,’ and I hope they, and their friends still in obscurity, do. The print editions will also provide students, amateurs in their own living (if not drawing) rooms (to whom the songs were originally sold to play, back in the day) and other professionals to perform in public, but beyond that we have here a very astute and keenly felt performance by a very fine chamber group.
Elena Xanthoudakis has the best kind of old-fashioned soprano’s full-blooded style and approach, allowing the full depth and range of feeling to come out in the music without reserve. The dynamics of the trio with the additional alto voice is somewhat different from the straight Lieder with solo voice and piano accompaniment, and in these songs the clarinet is often given a very important role as a melodic voice outside the human one, whether in introducing the pieces as in Lindtpainter’s Der Hirt und das Meerweib or the clarinet’s birdsong which leads into Proch’s Die gefangene Nachtigall, or in carrying the tempo and pulse of the song during a rest in the singer’s line, even bringing in important dramatic and harmonic modulations at times, or in ensemble playing, playing something approaching counterpoint to the sung part on very nearly equal terms. Elena Xanthoudakis gives each song the full feeling they are due in a very intuitive way, which is very refreshing to hear. She has a powerful, full, yet sensitive voice, able to build up and sustain quite a volume, and singing by the fully open Steinway the sound could be overwhelming at times, though they didn’t overuse their greatest swell. But she is able to build up crescendos very gradually and steadily when so called for with great technical control. Her German in very good, especially in the faster, more speech-like singing, the consonants playing against the mellow, resonant tendencies in the clarinet and the piano’s percussive tendencies and the harmonic and melodic shape of the music in a fascinating way. She calmly takes a moment between songs to pull herself into the character of the next, and though singing from the score her gestures are natural, whether a simple sweep of the hand, or opening of the eyes, or bracing against the piano as if pulled in the tide of the passionate music. Indeed, even turning the page her music (very much part of the musician’s choreography) can become a touching dramatic gesture in perfect tune with the music; her heroines (and heros) are always bright-eyed and interesting, having much address. Her voice is bright, energetic, with an interesting texture nearer the shining raw silk end of the spectrum than the velvet, with a subtle vibrato and taught trills. Her understanding detail and nuance in the phrasing of the music speaks to her sensibility as well as the thorough research, rehearsal and no doubt endless takes the group has gone through for the recording, knowing the music inside and out. Though maybe a somewhat larger and higher-ceilinged recital hall than the ubiquitous, and almost always hypothetical, drawing room associated with the genre (whether or not actual intended by the composers as the ideal setting for their songs) her singing anyway had the immediacy to make for an intimate recital. As for historical performance practice, one of the most important things to get right, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt has pointed out, is to capture afresh in the present day the original spirit of the music, that in which it was inspired and composed and first performed, and I felt their honestly and sensitively attuned performance did this.
The ensemble playing, especially after the interval, was very tight in a way which defies analysis. It may interesting to hear them with the piano lid closed down a bit more, though Xanthoudakis’ voice was not overpowered by the often characterful piano parts even with Clemens Leske’s very distinct, at times pouncing, articulation of the notes. Jason Xanthoudakis and Leske played the Schumann Fantasies in a singing, conversing manner; perhaps it is beneficial to play with a human voice.
The program, with a familiar root in the Schubert Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (Shepherd on the Rock), had a certain flow to it, forming a kind of loose cycle although many of the songs extracted from larger cycles themselves (and it would be wonderful to hear them complete, at least as a recording) as arranged here, seeming to tremble between homesick and lovesick, as the songs themselves do between the inner thoughts of the protagonist and the larger external landscape, nature, into which they always tend to be absorbed finally. The final Der Hirt und das Meerweib (The Shepherd and the Mermaid) completes this absorption and the program in a preternatural and fantastic way. The subtlety and ambiguity of feeling, and the honest self contradiction of 19th century songs and poets which ties them to those of the late middle ages and their gallantry, is one of the wonderful things about them.
Sydney (and no doubt Melbourne too) is very fortunate to have had this opportunity and it is a shame so many missed it (there was a certain over-hyped première happening at the same time not a stone’s throw away in Sydney Harbour; so this recital was a satisfying bit of Meerweibs Rache). I hope they have many more chances to perform and that word gets around because it truly adds a dimension to Sydney’s artistic life.