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FRIENDS OF MUSIC RECITAL: MARCH 22 (article first published : 2005-03-23)

A song recital has limited appeal, judging by the modest turn-out for this performance at the Durban Jewish Centre by Julianne de Villiers (mezzo soprano) and Mark Nixon (piano). Those who did not come missed an evening of absolutely outstanding music-making.

Both performers are South Africans who now live in England and are involved in, among other things, a group called the London Song Circle which aims to promote interest in the art song, a pretentious term but I can’t think of a better one. Basically it means songs of high artistic value which are written to be performed alone and not as part of an opera or oratorio or other group performance. I suppose the definition could include the fact that when these songs are written for voice and piano the keyboard part is much more than a mere accompaniment; it is as important as the vocal role.

In a programme ranging from Haydn to Benjamin Britten, Julianne de Villiers and Mark Nixon showed that they are artists of the highest standard. She has a beautifully controlled full-blooded mezzo voice, quite different from the piping coloraturas of so many operas. And he is a pianist who combines technical expertise with the most sympathetic judgment of tone and emphasis in relation to his partner’s voice.

Their recital opened with three little known songs by Haydn, two of them settings of typical eighteenth century poems by Anne Hunter, an English friend of the composer, and the third set to lines by Shakespeare… “like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief”. All three contain lovely music, as one would expect from Haydn.

Providing a brief commentary between the various groups of songs, Mark Nixon made the point that piano and voice have more or less the same notes in Haydn’s songs, whereas Schubert writes contrasting yet complementary melodic lines for the two performers. Who is Sylvia? illustrated this point to perfection, with singer and pianist achieving an exquisite balance of tone. The Schubert section of the programme was completed with the beautiful and familiar Ave Maria and two celebrated dramatic pieces, The Young Nun and Gretchen at the spinning wheel.

Four songs by Brahms followed. Mark Nixon noted that the bigger and more sonorous pianos of Brahms’s day meant that the pianist had to be careful not to drown the voice of the singer. In fact there was no danger of this happening. Miss de Villiers has a powerful voice and Mr Nixon a sympathetic ear.

After the interval we were taken well off the beaten track with songs by Henri Duparc, who is remembered today only because of the 17 songs he wrote between 1868 and 1884; Aaron Copland (settings of poems by Emily Dickinson); and Benjamin Britten.

The enjoyment of the audience was heightened by the fact that, very sensibly, they were provided with the texts and, where applicable, English translations of all the songs performed. – Michael Green




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