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28 May 2009

Songs of Earth and Sky

Melbourne // VIC // 20.05.2009

Jessica Aszodi Image: Jessica Aszodi  

Melbourne-based soprano Jessica Aszodi further enhanced her reputation as a fine interpreter of contemporary vocal repertoire with an intensely varied performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s smaller venue, the Salon. Accompanied by promising young pianist Peter Jager, she presented a program that attempted to address the Big Questions – '…the subject of our passing time on earth; our mortality, transience and faith'. In a selection of works by composers ranging from mid twentieth-century stalwarts Messiaen, Berio and Ligeti through to premieres by Melbourne-based composers Robert Dahm and Kate Neal, the performers presented different musical thoughts on this weighty subject matter.

In his recent book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins comments on the lack of artistic creations that celebrate the natural world and scientific discoveries, as opposed to events of religious significance. The Origin Cycle, commissioned for soprano Jane Sheldon and the Firebird Ensemble and premiered at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in April 2009, is an attempt to redress the balance. Six composers were commissioned to set passages from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

Aszodi began her recital with Hourly Scrutinising, an excerpt from Kate Neal’s contribution. Unpredictably angular lines and jagged discontinuous rhythms became a metaphor for the 'patterns underlying the apparently chaotic struggle for life' (composer’s own words). Short motifs constantly self-replicated and underwent subtle transformations in a musical evocation of the process of evolution itself. The performers were joined by an uncredited violinist for this work, who added a strand of fast staccato harmonics.

With barely a break to acknowledge applause, the performers went straight into Luigi Dallapiccola’s Quattro Liriche di Antonio Machado (1948). With their dramatic and expressive gestures, these songs allowed Aszodi to display the mastery of character she has developed in her operatic experience. The poet’s passionate supplications were realised with strength and power. Though the piano accompaniment was at times a little overwhelming, Aszodi seemed to draw strength from the ground itself, and the intimate Salon space itself was too small to contain the intensity poured into this music. An impressive performance that was one of the evening’s highlights.

Another short break (was there a time constraint? This concert moved very quickly) and we heard the other Australian work on the program: Robert Dahm’s Hölderlinfragmente. The text was taken from Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem 'Mnemosyne', which is concerned with history and the fallibility of memory. To this end, the composer deconstructed a history of vocal forms – thus the work begins with a passacaglia that disintegrates immediately after the first ground is presented, a monody that splinters into (at least) two voices, and a lied that includes distant imperfect memories in the forms of quotations from Schubert’s Winterreise.

The work presents immense challenges for the performers. Not withstanding the difficulties of metrical complexity and intervallic contour, the pitch and rhythm of the vocal part are at times notated separately, requiring the singer to 'reconstitute the materials in order to produce a performer-driven state of complex monody' (composer’s words). An interesting idea, but the implications of this were not clear in the performance itself. What was effective was Aszodi’s ability to divide her voice tonally into two completely different characters, suggestive of conflict. Where the text states that we 'have almost lost our speech' Dahm undermines this by creating an extra voice. This is typical of the composer’s approach, which abounds in delicate subversions and subtle ironies. The music itself was multilayered, but always economical, refined and nuanced.

The next pieces were examples of the mature works of two of the most influential composers of the last century. Both were characterised by the calm assurance of experience rather than the rush of youthful energy. Yet another short break led to an alternate reading of Hölderlin – Ligeti’s Der Sommer (1989). This work had a calming homogeneity in the accompanying piano textures and a wistful lyricism.

Three of Berio’s Six Encores (published 1990) for solo piano gave Aszodi the well-earned break that she had so far denied herself in the breakneck pacing of the recital. Especially noteworthy was Jager’s control of texture in the quirky resonances of 'Leaf', whilst the final 'Wasserklavier' showed Berio’s personal idiom shining through clearly in his peculiar take on simple modality.

The concluding work of the concert was a performance of Messiaen’s Chants de terre et de ciel (1938). These texts, by the composer himself, amount to a personal declaration of love for his family, in which Messiaen’s ineffable patterning is tempered by the simple lyricism of the soprano line. Aszodi chose just the right balance of warmth and expressivity to highlight this humanisation of the composer’s usually mystical style.

Event Details

'Songs of Earth and Sky'
Works by Neal, Ligeti, Dahm, Dallapiccola, Berio and Messiaen
Jessica Aszodi, soprano
Peter Jager, piano
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, Vic
20 May 2009


Subjects discussed by this article:

Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.


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