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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano), Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 23rd October, 2004 (AO)


For two hundred and fifty years, many famous names have graced the platform at the Holywell Music Room, the oldest concert venue in the world. At this recital, the sense of history was palpable. Graham Johnson quietly announced that the evening was a memorial to the late Eric Sams. Johnson remembered Sams's kindness and generosity, his love for Lieder and his knowledge. Johnson himself has contributed tremendously to song over the decades in many ways. For me it was like observing a moment in history, a great man in music mourning another, a much-loved friend. This was the closing concert in the Oxford Lieder Festival. It was moving indeed, to contemplate generations of people who have given so much to Lieder, and to know that their ideals are being kept alive still by new audiences and new performers.


Geraldine McGreevy, one of Johnson's long term partners, looked radiant in grey silk, which belied the fact she was suffering from a serious head cold. Yet being the true professional she is she had the élan to suppress her private misery in the service of song. Indeed, observing her was an object lesson in itself on how art can overcome agony. As someone in the audience said later, “if she can sing like that when she feels awful, she must be wonderful when she's well.” Indeed, that's true, for her vivacity and intelligence distinguish her singing and make her rare appearances in recital a special occasion.


Indeed, it was remarkable how well she managed the long lines in Die Sterne, finishing with a burst of radiant feeling. In Lachen und Weinen, she produced a bell like tone, deliciously curling her voice around the word “Morgen”. Johnson played with unusual warmth, and the piano seemed to smile with appreciation. McGreevy's professionalism showed too, in that she could draw on experience with these songs to add to her interpretation, even when her top notes showed strain. In Ganymede, her expressive face conveyed the sound of a nightingale calling from afar. Understandably, she took a break before Gretchen am Spinnrade to marshal her resources for that demanding song with its whirling cadences. Her Suleika II also came forth pure and clear. The Brahms songs, with their lower tessitura posed few problems. The high spirits of the chirpy Auf dem Schiffe seemed totally genuine.


But McGreevy is a Wolf singer par excellence, as anyone who knows her Hyperion recording of the Goethe Songs with Johnson will know. Over the years, her voice has matured and refined, without losing the spirited sense of enthusiasm that is her trademark. The two miniatures, Blumengruss and Gleich und gleich were a wonder of delicacy and precision. The three Mignon settings are a tour de force for any singer, and McGreevy intuitive identification for them gave them expressive depth and beauty. It was a pleasure to watch how she and Johnson interacted, he picking up the smallest clues as to what she was feeling and adjusting his playing so it cradled her voice and made it lovely. This is accompaniment as an art form in itself.


Then, after a long and taxing evening, she sang the fourth and greatest Mignon song of them all, Kennst du das Land. It is perhaps the most beautiful song in the whole repertoire, a song on which reputations are made. It was exquisite. She expressed the intense, sensual longing in the song, with myriad colours. Her characterisation of the doomed Mignon, a dreamer despite her tragic circumstances, came from deep understanding.


Johnson then read Mörike's Im Frühling in English translation in tribute to Eric Sams. “I yearn without quite knowing why, half in pleasure, half in sorrow. My heart, tell me what memories are woven in the green gold boughs of twilight – old, unnameable days” . The sight of Johnson, with his head bowed in memory of Eric Sams was indelibly poignant. Then, in service of the “holdes Kunst” that brought us all together in this hallowed venue, McGreevy sang the song (in German) while Johnson played with exceptional, heart-rending beauty. I wished that last line would never end, “ – alte unnennbare Tage”........

Anne Ozorio

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