Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, This be her verse, Recital, The Queens Hall Review

***** (5 stars)

“lyrically descriptive and deeply moving”

A shockingly half empty Queen’s Hall was treated to an outstanding recital from South African soprano Golda Schultz and American pianist Jonathan Ware.  The programme was showcasing songs by women composers, including Clara Schumann, and I couldn’t help thinking that the Queen’s Hall would have been packed if the programme had been of songs by her husband Robert and other male composers.

Well, all those people who didn’t want to risk encountering music by unknowns, and women to boot, missed out on a treat of outstanding quality.  Overheard in the interval: “she’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous”, and I couldn’t agree more.  Golda Schultz’s voice is to die for – lush, smooth, creamy, seemingly effortlessly produced – and her warm, sunny personality reached out to and engaged us from her very first notes as she shared her delight in the music she presented to us.

All the music was new to me, and I’m now a fervent convert to the songs of Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Tagg [and Amy Beach in a delightful encore].   Many of the poems set were familiar to me from other [male] composers’ work and it was fascinating to hear someone else’s interpretation and setting of those familiar words – a female interpretation of what in most of the poems is a [male version of a] female view of the world [rather as Bridgerton’s romantic relationships are portrayed with ‘the female gaze’].  The poet Lila Palmer wrote the poems, This be her verse,  for Kathleen Tagg’s songs and comments on them in the programme – “This be her verse is preoccupied with the difficulty of maintaining female personhood within traditional heteronormative structures while celebrating the rich fulfillment of that experience.£

And the songs, oh the songs!  [Would I have known that they were written by women, if I’d not had the programme in front of me?]  They were gorgeous, moving, ecstatic, frightening, lyrically descriptive and deeply moving.

What do I want to say?  I was hooked and engrossed from beginning to end.  Each setting was perfect for its poem, and many were extremely inventive.  It’s almost impossible to pick ‘stand out’ ones because they were all gorgeous. Golda was a brilliant interpreter of them all, her face and body language telling the story even if you didn’t know English, French or German [or have the translations in front of you]. 

I didn’t know the work of Rebecca Clarke [1886-1979] whose work was [surprise surprise!] largely ignored because of her gender.  I will long remember .a haunting setting of the folk song Down by the Sally Gardens; a vividly growling and tail-lashing setting of William Blake’s Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright; and the hauntingly dramatic The Seal Man – a John Masefield poem about a woman who follows her lover into the sea, only to discover that he is not human.  She drowns.

Clara Schumann’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei was a vivid depiction of the Rhine-maiden luring a sailor to his watery graves, and Emilie Mayer’s Erlkönig II, asetting of the Goethe poem about a father and son riding through the night, desperately trying to evade the Erlking’s seductive lures.  Both more than rival the better-known versions by Liszt and Schubert.  I didn’t know Nadia Boulanger’s work, but loved her La mer est plus belle – a beautiful evocation of the sea in all its moods – while Priere floated a gentle watercolour melody above tolling church bells.

The highlight of the programme was This be her verse, the work written by her friends Kathleen Tagg [composer] and Lila Palmer [librettist] at Golda’s request.  The three poems spoke volumes about what it is to be a woman today – the incessant demands on her and the struggle to retain any sense of identity; the realisation at her wedding that she will spend her life waiting for her husband; and the delights [and challenges] of The Single Bed.  Their settings present a challenge to singer and pianist alike, the latter not only being required to play on the keyboard but also inside the guts of the ‘altered’ piano, producing sounds of traffic, car horns, church bells and the sound of waiting… waiting… waiting… 

It was a challenge to which Golda Schultz and Jonathan Ware rose with aplomb and delight: their joy in each other’s performance and of working together was palpable, and they invited us in to share their joy and live the songs with them.  All the way through Golda was engaging with us, sharing her thoughts and, at the end of the formal programme, inviting us to admire the altering of the piano and Jonathan’s incredible performance on the instrument – at times he definitely seemed to have more than two hands!  The Amy Beach song they presented as their encore had me in tears – I send my heart up to thee in my singing encapsulated everything we had witnessed in Golda and Jonathan’s performance.

Each section of the programme had received loud, prolonged applause: the final section was greeted with deafening applause, stamping and cheers.  All you who stayed away: you just don’t know what an incredible treat you missed!

Edinburgh International Festival, This be her verse, Recital, Run Ended


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