My Serenade

This week, I have been attending a three-day master class given by Graham Johnson at the Jerusalem Music Centre in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, for singers and accompanists performing Schubert’s Lieder. I always enjoy having the opportunity to hear promising young musicians at the start of their professional careers and I also learned a great deal, simply by listening and observing. One of the singers taking part was the 20-year old baritone Guy Pelc, accompanied on the piano by his 19-year old brother, Ayal Pelc. Now, I mentioned Guy briefly in passing, in my last post. He was one of the four members of the Gloriana Ensemble whose concert of renaissance music I blogged about last week. However, after hearing him as a soloist,  I (and, it must be said, Mr. Johnson also) was even more impressed by his natural musicality as well as his “feel” for this particular kind of music, unusual in one so young. Both brothers are currently serving in the Israel Defence Forces in the IDF’s special programme for outstanding musicians. Guy mentioned that he has been singing lieder ever since he took up vocal music at the age of fourteen. I have to say that one of the things I most envy him is being able to work so closely and so frequently with his accompanist, since they are, as I already mentioned, brothers. I wish that I had found, in my own immediate family, such a kindred spirit who might have shared my love of music. I would have liked to bring a video clip of this duo but I searched in vain on YouTube. All I could find was this recording of the Schubert Mass no. 2 in G Minor, where you can hear Guy in the baritone solos at 16:50 (Benedictus) and 21:00 (Agnus Dei). Since the whole master class was filmed, I have hopes that a record of the event will eventually find its way to YouTube in the not-too-distant future.

Another participant who made a great impression on me right from the very first session, was the mezzo-soprano Hagar Sharvit, with a dramatic interpretation of Gretchen am Spinnrade. So dramatic, in fact, that she had me on the edge of my seat, goosebumps all over me :-). One of the impressive things about Hagar was the fact that she had evidently given a great deal of thought to the background of the songs. For example, she told Graham Johnson that she had, in fact, gone to the trouble of reading the Goethe play from which the text is taken.  Hagar, though young, displays a great deal of confidence in her performance and has, I would say, operatic tendencies. A quick Google search reveals that she is indeed, perhaps, at the start of an operatic career. Graham Johnson actually remarked that, at one stage, she made him think more of Carmen than of Gretchen! I would, in fact, be interested to see her interpretation of that fiery gypsy. Here she can be heard in a slightly less dramatic performance of the same song, in Stuttgart last year. Her performance today, the last day of the master-class, of Der Zwerg, was no less dramatic. (She can be heard performing this song here, at 19:30 – and on the same clip, you can hear her in Nachtstück,  which she performed on the second day of Graham Johnson’s master-class.) Kudos also to her accompanist, Anna Kavalerova, who also accompanied another of the participants, Zlata Khershberg. Zlata has a “big” voice – possibly the most purely beautiful of the voices we heard over the past three days. Her interpretation of Die junge Nonne on the first day was absolutely thrilling – even more so when she adopted Graham Johnson’s suggestions – and she just got better and better. Alas, I could not find any video clips of her in this kind of repertoire, only in Bach and in Israeli/Jewish music.

Also appearing was the tenor, Oshri Segev, for whom, I felt, Graham Johnson made life rather difficult, as he disagreed with him about almost everything – tempo, dynamics, interpretation – but Oshri was prepared to stand his ground and argue for what he believed in. Today, however, he appeared to have internalised the maestro’s comments and suggestions. It will be interesting to hear him, as I hope to do, next week at a concert in the framework of a Conference on Music and Brains.

The third young lady to take part in the master-class was Hanna Bardos. On the first day, Graham Johnson took her to task for choosing a very low key, a third or a fourth below the original, and thus making life too easy for herself. He then replaced her accompanist, the talented Emma Walker, at the keyboard and proceeded to put Hanna through her paces in several different keys (without music, of course, playing it all from memory). At the start of the day’s session, she had sounded like a contralto, but by the end of the day, she was singing like a mezzo-soprano. It was Hanna and Emma who closed the proceedings for us today with a philosophical Auf dem Wasser zu singen.

Besides the young singers, it was also a pleasure to hear Graham Johnson himself, as he spiced up his talk with reminiscences (some of them exceedingly amusing) of famous singers with whom he has worked. This is a consummate musician who is immensely knowledgeable, not only about music but also about literature and history (social history in particular), especially as these impacted on the music. In truth, I learned a very great deal, as I said before – about Schubert, about music, about art in general and, strange as it may seem, about humanity.

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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2 Responses to My Serenade

  1. Bernadette Bauer says:

    Anybody who has heard one of the better Gounod songs sung by the likes of Reynaldo Hahn, Ninon Vallin, Charles Panzéra, Pierre Bernac or Gérard Souzay will know how extremely lovely and hard to sing they are!They require a full technique-what Gérard Souzay has called “French bel canto”-to do justice to their delicate and elaborate melodies; a perfect sense of STYLE constructed on an idiomatic command of ennunciation; an elegant musicianship; last, but emphatically not least, they require CHARM, an elusive feeling impossible to coach.Study a few of those older interpreters, and you will understand immediately, in a few measures, why some people-among them Maurice Ravel-thought Charles-Marie Gounod the father of French art song.It is nice to have this collection by three respected British singers in superb, though somewhat overresonant, digital sound. They are musical, somewhat slack perfomances in high-school French. They totally lack any sense of what the music is about, however, or any of the sensuous elegance the music requires. The worst offender is the tenor, whose dry little voice-what is known in the operatic world as a tenorino comprimario-is completely lacking in charm or aural appeal. His Italian, in the Biondina cycle, is awful.The women are a bit better, but sound none-too-young.The pianist, who is the brain behind this whole series of Hyperion song recordings, is a good player with an ear for the lovely phrase, but tends to take everything far too slowly: the nascent love of the singer for the lovely Biondina, and his funereal lamentations for her demise, towards the end of the cycle, sound exactly alike! That is certainly NOT Gounod’s fault.Listen to Reynaldo Hahn’s one recoding from this cycle, and you will understand immediately why this collection will really not do.

    • That’s very interesting, Bernadette. I believe Reynaldo Hahn was, in fact, better known as a composer of songs than as a singer (certainly that is what he is remembered for these days). I love French “art songs” – not just Gounod, but also Fauré, Debussy, etc. Do you sing yourself?

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