Monday, 20 August 2012

STORIES FROM THE GARDEN / Brendan-Keefe Au Vocal Recital / Review

The Living Room @ The Arts House
Friday (17 August 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 August 2012 with the title "A master of nuances in four languages".

It is refreshing to encounter a tenor who does not aspire to be the next Pavarotti or Domingo. Young tenor Brendan-Keefe Au, in his debut vocal recital (with pianist Hye-Seon Choi accompanying), is closer in spirit to Peter Pears or Ian Bostridge, to name two British tenors renowned for their sensitivity and refinement rather than “can belto” abilities.

Au is of slight and slender built, but carries himself with an air of confidence. Add a boyish smile and gentle personality, the likeability factor comes across winningly. In a well-conceived programme of 18 songs inspired by the garden, nature and love, he impressed with a mastery of nuances and shades in four languages.   

Opening with Italian, there was lightness and crispness of articulation in Scarlatti’s Le Violette, Sarti’s Lungi del caro bene (Far from my Beloved) and Bellini’s Vanne, O rosa fortunata (Go, Fortunate Rose). His expression of sorrow and longing were made all the more believable, and he was just warming up.

German accounted for eight of the songs, beginning with two light-hearted Lieder by Schubert. The familiar Heidenröslein (Little Red Rose) rang with a playful sprightliness, while Die Taubenpost (Pigeon Post) from the cycle Schwanengesang (Swan Song) warmed up the heart in the anticipation of good news from one’s beloved. In Mozart’s Das Veilchen (Little Violet), Au’s sense of theatricality and vivid story-telling came through well.

It was, however, less plain-sailing in Brahms’s Lerchengesang (Lark’s Song), where the high registers seemed beyond easy reach, and strain became apparent. The comedic irony of Mahler’s Ablösung in Sommer (Relief in Summer) was not fully realised, but Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow) was a bona fide interpretation, its ghostly martial echoes a poignant reflection of death on a battlefield.

Au’s French held up well in Chausson’s two chansons, Les Papillons and Le Colibri (The Humming Bird), the latter finding a rapturous high amid lush Wagnerian harmonies. He was on a comfortable home stretch for the four English songs that closed the evening. Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon and Quilter’s It was a Lover and his Lass delved on love from different view-points, and he was convincing on both accounts.

Two settings of British folksongs, The Ash Grove and The Last Rose of Summer, with Benjamin Britten’s piquant piano harmonisations, were pure pleasure itself. The darkly hued Last Rose would have cast a gloomy pall, but Au finished off with the far more cheerful Down by the Salley Gardens for good measure and prolonged applause. The road to true artistry is a long and arduous one, but this talented tenor is well and truly on his way.

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