CLASSICAL: Melodramas Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
This concert devoted to "dramatic works for narrator and piano" as one of the enterprising Stephan Zweig series was sparsely attended. Did it look too high-minded? It began on a low note: "Moonshine, shine; Let me see my twine." Not even the versatile Prunella Scales could save this twaddle, the opening of Fibich's The Water Goblin, translated by Deryck Viney. Fibich illustrated the text: the piano rippled when the narrator described the surface of the water, and rocked when prompted by a lullaby. If it stimulated one's curiosity to hear more of Fibich's work (seven unknown operas and the centenary of his death looms up in three years) it did rather less for the cause of melodrama.

Schubert's late Abschied von der Erde was a revelation, however: Walter van Dyk made much of this farewell to the world, speaking from memory, while Schubert's music was played beautifully by pianist William Howard. Robin Holloway's 1994 "character study for speaker and piano" used a short story by Walter de la Mare. Of all the works it made the strongest case for melodrama. An adult man looks back on his boyhood acquaintance with an eccentric neighbour, Miss Duveen (the story's original title), who made him feel like a snail watched by a blackbird. Miss Duveen speaks for herself, along with the boy's grandmother. But "speaking" was what they mostly did not do: the piano articulated feelings, so the music was necessary, never decorative, which is why it worked so well as melodrama. The words were brilliantly performed by Miss Scales. When she threw back her head and said, referring to God, "He... knows... best", she initiated a complex, unsettling game with knowing. By the end, when the adult man remembered how Miss Duveen last looked, "hungry and not quite clean", but knows that "to brood on the past" is "perhaps indelicate", we could not be sure what we knew. For all the obscurity of the text, the music of The Blackbird and the Snail packed a considerable emotional punch.

The evening ended with Viktor Ullmann's melodrama to Rilke's poem The Song of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, in an English translation based on Alfred Perles. Ullmann's music heightens the impact of individual words and phrases (riding, of course, writing a letter, women, dancing), without ever establishing an independent musical arrangement. Extraordinary that he should have chosen this archetypal text of German romanticism in Terezin in 1944. William van Dyk's narration was frustrated by the occasional archaism, such as "Art thou the night?". Perhaps the evening was not quite as high-minded as it ought to have been: words uncompromised by being set to music demand more respect. The bad translation did the Fibich no favours; the Schubert and Ullmann melodramas should have been performed in the original German. I can't pretend that would have packed the hall, however.

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