Susan Bullock & Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall

Myrten, Op.25 [selections: Widmung; Der Nußbaum; Die Lotosblume; Du bist wie eine Blume; Lied der Suleika]
Mörike-Lieder [selections: Nimmersatte Liebe; Schlafendes Jesuskind; Auf ein altes Bild; Verborgenheit; Er ists]
Joseph Marx
Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht; Maienblüten; Selige Nacht; Hat dich die Liebe berührt
Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire [selections: Harmonie du soir; Le jet d’eau; Recueillement]
If there were dreams to sell; Spring sorrow; My true love hath a heart
Folksong arrangements [selections: Fileuse; La belle est au jardin d’amour; Il est quelqu’un sur terre; Quand j’étais chez mon père]

Susan Bullock (soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 22 March, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Susan Bullock. Photograph: Anne-Marie Le BleThis recital was less a formal performance than an evening of shared delights delivered with such verve and artistry that its occasional flaws were soon forgiven. The atmosphere throughout was relaxed and intimate and (if the cheers that greeted the duo’s return from the interval were anything to go by) they were among friends – a circle of admirers that will surely have grown by the time the programme drew to a close.

An opening cluster of ten bejewelled miniatures, five each by Schumann and Hugo Wolf, revealed Susan Bullock’s literary sensitivity which she combined with her operatic experience to create moments of magic – in ‘Widmung’ (Dedication) where she so tenderly caressed the phrase “Du hebst mich liebend über mich” (you raise me lovingly above myself), and in ‘Der Nußbaum’ (The walnut tree) in which her tenuto at “Sie flüstern” (They whisper) caused a tingle. A pity, then, that the singer’s radiant voice, so strong and rich most of the time, had a tendency to cut out when she essayed a pianissimo, as a consequence of which she sang at mezzo-forte or above for most of the time.

Malcolm Martineau. Photograph: martineau.infoMalcolm Martineau, that most poetic yet good-humoured of pianists, located the greatness of Hugo Wolf’s accompaniments in settings such as ‘Verborgheit’ (Seclusion), where his instrument’s restless hues lent a bittersweet tang to the smooth lyricism of the vocal line: a living incarnation of the closing words, “Laßt dies Herz alleine haben seine Wonne, seine Pein!” (Let this heart keep to itself its rapture, its pain!). Martineau closed the final Wolf offering, ‘Er ists’ (Spring is here), with a virtual time-lapse-photographed eruption of the season’s blooms in a coda of dazzling floridity.

After so much colour and rapture from two giants of the Lied, the Austro-German half of the recital ended with a thud. On the evidence of this selection the songs of Joseph Marx (1882-1964) are prosaic stuff, with only the muted moonlight of ‘Selige Nacht’ (Blissful night) of passing interest. None of them brought out the best in either performer, and Bullock’s ffff climaxes to the last two settings were strident – as if she felt the need to (over)sell the music.

Debussy suits Bullock admirably, even though her French pronunciation, while largely accurate, lacks the nuanced delicacy of, say, Felicity Lott. The three Baudelaire settings were rendered with tonal beauty and a sure command of their long lines. Only ‘Recueillement’ (Meditation) was less rapt than it might be. After these French glories, the songs of John Ireland were lowly offerings. It was the Marx problem again, only worse – for not only do Ireland’s settings lack melodic inspiration, the text of the opening poem at least (by Thomas Lovell Beddoes) is even drearier than the music.

Britten’s French-folksong arrangements have grown in currency in recent years – they are gems. ‘Fileuse’ (Spinster) is like a Chant d’Auvergne with a Suffolk punch, while ‘La belle est au jardin d’amour’ (Beauty is in the garden of love) is treated with restraint by Britten until the final stanza, when by means of a few deft strokes the piano paints a stark picture of desolation. In an evening of contrasts none were more extreme than the two encores, each of which celebrated an anniversary. The Isolde-like ‘Träume’ (from Wesendonck-Lieder) was Bullock and Martineau marking the bicentenary of Wagner, while, less predictably but wholly delightfully, Stephen Sondheim’s eighty-third birthday was honoured by the deliriously funny number he and Mary Rodgers wrote to send up Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova style. ‘The Boy From…’ is a wordplay parody of unbridled joyfulness, and Bullock’s delivery of it was pure showbiz.

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