FringeReview UK 2018
Late May marks Mezzo Michele Roszak and pianist Lynda Spinney making a very welcome return after their remarkable January 24th and May 30th recitals. They’re also returning in February date TBA. Catch them then.
Harmony in Love? That’s the teaser today. Michele Roszak’s as ever a richly engaging singer pushing her range through the soprano register – and here basking in late summer fun.
Always pushing new repertoire too she ranges widely here. Lynda Spinney’s acute understanding maximises their impact and she enjoys some slamming moments.
So naturally Roszak and Spinney give us anything but Harmony in Love. at the point of each song – sometimes there’s a later happy outcome as with the Gershwins – we’re at a point of split, departure, abjuration to put it quaintly.
First up was ‘I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly’ the first of two Purcell renditions. It’s a floaty flyaway piece with the last words of that opening line soaring on a dip and melismatic shift tat can bedevil all but the best, yet sees to be given to reluctant singers starting out. Roszak has a natural way with this, a kind of reluctant rhapsodizing of course being the chief element – the nexts words are ‘in vain’ and it’s a finely balanced rejection, very pro tem. It won’t end here.
moart’s not known for his songs, the lieder tradition being just about struggling into being. This though ‘Als Luise die briefe’ is operatic, dramatic, dark-toned, not really one of his relatively light songs at all. It seems another love letter’s gone wrong. In some ways the way Roszak negotiated the sturm und rang element, that 1770s prefiguring of gothic-romantic sensibility, was the most fascinating of all.
The beautifully slight Fauré ‘Adieu’ was something Roszak declared she learned early and hadn’t returned to. it glided past sotto voce, not one of Fauré’s great soulful tunes but rightly delicate, a sigh of smiling parting, an affair, really a summer fling passed with no regrets. How sanely French is that?
Purcell’s back with another ambiguous Restoration hesitation on the long slide to sexual love, something Restoration poets – among whom were many women – rightly saw as both exciting and dangerous. A kind of sexual sanity rare in our culture infused the period. This is a surprisingly sensitive song and Roszak colours it with a depth and quiet sentiment entirely winning. It’s not the most Purcellian piece, which shows we know Purcell far less than we should; theres so much more of him.
The trad. piece was William Taylor also known as Bold William Taylor all about a typically unnamed girl who seeks out her press-ganged lover snatched from their wedding day to find this Irishman has married someone else.
Roszak sings this unaccompanied with crystalline diction which makes it apparent there are several versions and this particular one is rather scrambled. Of Roszak’s keen dispatch though there’s no doubt. She neatly impersonates the differing voices.
We’re jump-cut from the poor man vanishing to his girl finding a captain who points her in the right direction arming her (as I think in one version he does). I’m not sure if she does for the poor bride too, but perhaps leaves her standing as these were one-shot days. Another version expands on her going for a soldier, being found out by the captain who then after she’s shot Taylor promotes her and perhaps actually marries her.
Brahms Serenade in Vain – let’s not replicate the German here – is a witty piece where Spinney fully engages with thumping chords as Roszak – as she does with Taylor – impersonates the lighter-voiced girl and the bluffer man. Here the importunate womanizer is given short shrift – it’s Brahms’ most cheery comic song and the piano chords mark a firm shutting of the window ‘good night my man’ and he ain’t.
Gershwin’s ‘But Not For Me’ is a little heartbreaker, from ‘Girl crazy or now Crazy Fro You as it’s rebranded from 1992 after the original title might seem really un-pc. Roszak makes the lump in the throat sing for ever and a day’ with tis yearning in ‘for though I can’t dismiss/the memory of his kiss’ with a plangently sustained lyricism that suits her. Roszak’s good in many things, and in this apparently lighter 20th century mezzo range of art-song from Novell and Coward through Porter Gershwin, and composers like Britten who also played with its edges is one of her fortes.
Before the next two examples of this Martini’s utterly memorable ‘Plaisir d’Amour’ in fact pits the instant spasm or moment of pleasure against the ache of abandonment. So the title’s a misnomer, but it glides as Roszak says so beautifully the memory of pleasure and happiness is to the fore once you’ve heard this remarkably sustained long-note song, rare in a classical period where the only clue is the classical cut of spinney’s deft accompaniment scaled back just for this. There’s a lovely dying all Roszak gets.
The last two items require acting. ‘Lets’ Call the Whole Thing Off’ Gershwin’s late masterpiece when working unhappily in Hollywood in 1937 ahs all those different cultural mismatches, the way to ‘you sat tom-ato and I say tom-ahto’ etc. Roszak characterizes this in a schizoid flurry of delight.
Finally Britten’s Auden setting – their Four Cabaret Songs of around 1937 suppressed for years – produces several classics including ‘Stops all the Clocks’ which is as good sung as read out. But apart from the manic ‘Driver, Drive Faster’ this is the most heady and I think the best of all: ‘Tell me the Truth about Love.’ Jill Gomez was the first reviver to make this her own with that wonderfully arch hesitation in ‘Now I’m nearly… thirty-five’ but even she hasn’t characterised the song as outrageously as Roszak does here.
Not only does she act out every line and verse with tis colourful faux-innocence ‘when I thought the man next door who look as if he knew/his wife grew very cross indeed and said it wouldn’t do’ etc. We also get ‘Brighton’s bracing air’ nicely pointed up; but by this time Roszak’s waltzed up the aisles wondering if love will come ‘just when I’m picking my nose.’ Britten ensures every pick of Auden’s verse that ‘picking’ is cruelly funny and the mezzo has to either get with it or give up. Only mild burlesque will do. There’s a marvellous climax, a full soprano range and Roszak as ever is ready for it, with no hint of vocal strain.
Finally we get ‘secret Love’ made famous by Doris dAy. Through Day it became a famous gay anthem Radio 3 picked up on in a Words and Music on gay love. It wasn’t quite meant a that of course. Anyway the audience can enjoy it as it were both ways, sung straight as here. Again there’s a long float but this time down into the chest register and Roszak delivers a full satisfying finish to that and to the recital.
Tunbridge Wells-based Roszak’s vocally adventurous and with Spinney a joy to hear. This duo really needs more exposure. 299 years ago today Keats wrote his ‘Ode to Autumn’, relishing he said, ‘a quiet power’. Roszak’s not exactly quiet, but there’s an unfussy straightforward relish, and a rapt containment as well as the consummate artistry that isn’t so far from the spirit of that. She’s back in February.