16 February 2012

Singing of sleep and inevitably of love

I am not surprised by volume in soprano voices - they even tower over orchestras - but I was surprised by the volume of Tegan Peemoeller’s harp when she played with the soprano Katherine Warren.

This concert restarted the so-pleasant lunchtime series for 2012 that I’ve discovered at St Alban’s Church in Woden. It’s a small chapel in the round, with a timber ceiling that directs the sound and carpeted floor and brick to give it some control, but even so the volume took me back. Then I noticed the similarity in tone to a classical guitar and the piano-like range, down to 3 octaves below middle-C (that’s double bass range). I spoke to Tegan after. The higher octaves are nylon strung, and the lower ones are variously gut and steel round-wound synthetic, so that low G she played was not the same tone. We also discussed tuning. Pity the poor harpist: subject to heat and humidity and lights, each string requiring individual tuning, all 7 octaves or so (~84 strings; the open strings are the piano’s white notes, and pedals sharpen or flatten for the full chromatic scale). The harp was loud but also gentle despite the twang of the pluck. And it was perfectly lovely with the high, pure singing of Katherine’s soprano. These were songs – they performed 11 in one set – and the songs were both short and distilled. They have a story but I didn’t easily catch the lyrics, so the voice becomes abstracted as pure intervals, twilling vibratos and swelling crescendos. The pair played a popular tune, Dream a little dream of me, and I found the earthiness and groove was missing to my ears. Classical performers don’t have the same sense as jazz or pop players about where to place the beat. I didn’t catch the words much either, but then they are trivial and sentimental so perhaps it’s not much loss. But the classical songs were a delight: richly structured melody; easy but effective harmonies; clarity of purpose; and a sense of timing that worked for the style. A song by Fauré recounted sailors leaving on ships and their wives in tears and you could hear the rolling of the seas in the rising and falling arpeggios in 3/4 and the bereft wives in the slow voice line above. These songs were prepared for a Sleep & Dreams concert, but most songs are love songs under the cover. Handel’s Oh sleep don’t you leave me was the starter, then a pair on the same poem, Come sleep. My guess is these were both mid-20th century. There were lullabies, including Brahm’s famous one, and another easily identifiable tune in I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. There was one particularly touching lullaby where an escaping soldier, left with a discarded baby, sings the child to sleep. This is clear and calm and pensive melodies and quite lovely. Tegan Peemoeller (harp) performed songs with Katherine Warren (soprano) at St Albans Church.

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