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Seen and Heard Recital Review

SONG ON THE SOUTH BANK Dvořák, Brahms Bernada Fink (mezzo); Jonathan Lemalu (baritone); Roger Vignoles (piano). QEH, Sunday, November 7th, 2004 (CC)

The coupling of Dvořák and Brahms is an inspired one, representing two distinct responses to the Romantic impulse. At least, that is what Fink, Lemalu and Vignoles persuaded us in a superb event at the QEH, part of a pair of recitals (the second on Tuesday 9th, where soprano Sarah Fox replaces Lemalu).


Bernada Fink’s affinity with the music of Dvořák has been hailed in the press (a response to her recent Harmonia Mundi disc - reference below). Live, there was no doubting the closeness of this composer to her heart. Four Songs in Folk Style, Op. 73 provided an easy-on-the-ear opener. Three of the songs are from the Slovácko region  (hence their use of South Moravian dialect), one from Bohemia. Fink’s pure top, full low register and her ability to sing as if intimately relating a tale worked in harmony with Vignoles’ ever-sensitive accompaniments. Just one example of Fink’s sensitivity was the suggestion of the poetic inverted commas of the text in the second song as the maid calls to her sweetheart. Of the four though the highlight was the third, ‘Ach není tu’. Dvořák’s writing is at its most sparse here. Vignoles added a remarkable depth of tone to the song based on longing. Throughout (as indeed, throughout the entire rectal), Fink’s diction was simply exemplary.


As Fink was to Dvořák, so Lemalu was to Brahms. A set of four songs established Lemalu’s credentials, ‘Verrat’, Op. 105 No. 5 leading the way. Over the space of six stanzas, Lemalu evoked Brahmsian simplicity, drama (he positively spat out the word ‘Liebschaft’, and in the final stanza sounded almost Hans Hotter-like, a comparison that was to recur, powerfully, later in the recital).


It was actually Vignoles who impressed most in ‘Salamander’, Op. 107 No. 2, in his crystalline definition and the depth of his postlude. Both conveyed the restlessness of ‘Verzagen’ (‘Despondency’), Vignoles in his swirling accompaniment, while the longing of the song ‘Heimweh II’ (which centres on the wish to return to childhood and its cosy securities) was heart-rending. Maybe it struck a chord in my own heart.


To round off the first half, Fink returned to the platform for more Dvořák, the beautiful Love Songs, Op. 83. Again, clarity of diction coupled with exemplary attendance to textual nuance were paramount considerations, meaning the final lines of the second song (‘Becomes again a paradise/And sings again its songs of old’) emerged as real bringers of hope. There are eight songs in total in Op. 83. Interestingly, the final song is a mix of almost Brahmsian descending arpeggiations coupled with a melodic line that is pure Dvořák. The ideal summation of the first half, then, and winningly rendered by Fink and Vignoles.


Coming out ‘cold’ in to Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, Op. 121 cannot be easy. Yet Lemalu moved straight into the bleak, black heart of these Lieder. His legato, so vital for this work, was silky smooth, and the rare shafts of light (even then coloured as if through a stained-glass window) were all the more welcome when presented with such care and warmth as here. Lemalu and Vignoles seemed to be making the link with the baritone movements in the Deutsches Requiem, while maintaining the still integrity of this group.


There were two encores (one for each singer, appropriately). First, Lemalu in a fresh performance of Brahms’ Frühling, then the Dvořák we all wanted, really if we’re honest, to hear. Fink gave us ‘Songs my mother taught me’, imbued with a most appealing sense of nostalgia. I for one left with a warmth that protected me against the chill night air on the South Bank.

A gripe about texts and translations. Little slips are niggly and probably would not normally warrant mention, except that there were quite a few of them. A bigger slip was the replacement of ‘západě’ (western) with ‘záchodě’ (‘záchod’ is Czech for toilet). Oops.

Colin Clark

Further Listening:

Dvorak Lieder Fink/Vignoles. Harmonia Mundi HMC901824


Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge. Hotter/Moore, EMI 5628072

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