Queen’s Hall & Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Storytelling in music can make the most fascinating of concerts, even beyond operas and orchestral works with a compositional narrative. Wednesday provided two very different, bold and rewarding ways to go about that.
South African soprano Golda Schulz and her regular pianist, American Jonathan Ware, commissioned her New York-domiciled countrywoman Kathleen Tagg and poet and librettist Lila Palmer to write This Be Her Verse, a three-song cycle about contemporary female experience. That’s the title they have also used for an Alpha Classics album and a recital programme that culminates in the new work but begins in the 19th century with the songs of Clara Schumann and the rediscovered Emilie Mayer.
The story it tells is not merely of women composers, celebrated and forgotten, but of female experience, even if all but one of the older songs set words written by men. When that includes a lovely melodic devotional quartet of French songs by Nadia Boulanger as well W B Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens, and Blake’s The Tiger alongside his Cradle Song, all in Rebecca Clarke’s settings, there is some interesting thinking going on – and it is no coincidence that those last three were some of Schulz’s most theatrical performances.
She has a very rich-toned voice, relaxed and comfortable across a wide range – and a very flexible range of expression to suit the tone of each song. The construction of the recital was masterly, returning to Schumann and Mayer after John Masefield’s The Seal Man to create a trilogy of fairytale fantasy across language and culture that mirrored the trilogy of reflections on modern reality that closed the programme. They are very good indeed, Tagg finding a multitude of ways of responding to Palmer’s witty and personal words. Schulz guided her (embarrassingly small) audience through it with great charm, Ware was more than equal to the span of approaches required as her foil, and an Amy Beach encore was appropriately joyous.
A fortnight or so beyond his 81st birthday, Catalan early music specialist Jordi Savall is still finding ways to push the envelope in a field that is a great deal more crowded that it was when he began his international musical journey in the 1970s.
Perhaps not since the Eurovision Song Contest in 1972 has the Usher Hall hosted such a global musical trek in a single evening. Ibn Battuta: The Traveller of Time was the story of the eponymous 14th century Arab writer, who explored the known world from his home in Morocco across Africa, Europe and the Middle East as far as India and China before returning home and writing up his adventures, and his impressions of the cultures he encountered from a Muslim perspective.
Using excerpts from his writings alongside a narrative of his life (written by Manuel Forcano), Savall and the current edition of his group Hesperion XXI was augmented by specialist singers and players to perform the music he may have encountered in the places he visited at that time.
Of course it was diverse, but is was also notable how much linked the music of one place with the next, and the sound of 700 years ago with our own time. Savall included his own barrio in some 13th century Spanish music, but often had little to do. There was a virtuosic raga by Prabhu Edouard on tablas and Daud Sadozai on sarod, some particularly fine singing from Syria’s Waed Bouhassoun, and Morocco’s Driss El Maloumi and Madagascar’s Rajery combined to lay down an irresistible groove on oud and valiha (the island’s national instrument, a tube zither). When the whole ensemble performed together the effect was as exotic as you may imagine.
The narrator was Assaad Bouab, who last played the Festival in 2011 as part of Tim Supple’s One Thousand and One Nights, will be familiar to many as Hicham Janowski in the French TV comedy Call My Agent! and has more recently been seen in something called Peaky Blinders on British television. He could, to be frank, have been a little more dynamic in his delivery of the exciting adventures of Ibn Battuta.
Picture of Golda Schulz by Ryan Buchanan