Susan Bullock, Wigmore Hall

Performing works by diverse composers
hailing from many countries, Bullock reminded us of her imposing and engaging
stage presence, and that her musical and dramatic talents are just as suited to
interpreting the song repertoire as to embodying the Wagnerian and Straussian
heroines who have made her name of late.

Bullock and her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, constructed a thoughtful
programme containing many unfamiliar and intriguing offerings.
‘Banquo’s Buried’ by Australian composer, Alison Bauld, made
a striking opening to the second half of the recital. Drawn from her ballad
opera, Nelland, which comprises a series of what Bauld terms
‘dramatic scenas’ based on texts from Shakespeare’s plays,
this piece revealed the composer’s sure theatrical instincts. Not
surprisingly, Bullock relished the dramatic tension and operatic gestures.
Bauld has commented on the origins of this setting of text from Lady
Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene, which owes to the “memory of a
powerful and idiosyncratic performance of the role by Sybil Thorndike. The
manner was operatic and perhaps, even then, unfashionable, but there was a
‘go-for-broke’ spirit which made sense of the tragedy. The piece
was conceived for all sopranos who enjoy a sense of theatre.” One cannot
imagine a soprano better suited to the role than Bullock.

From Australia to France, and four songs by Henri Duparc. ‘Au pays o˘
se fait la guerre’ (‘To the land where there is war’) is all
that remains of Duparc’s long-held, and regretfully abandoned, ambitions
for an opera based on Pushkin’s Rusalka. With its juxtaposition
of expansive lyrical melody and recitative, the song combines traits of the
operatic scena and French mÈlodie; Bullock effectively conveyed the
dramatic heights of the closing section as the poet-speaker hopes to conquer
the embracing darkness, sustained by “so many kisses and so much love/
that perhaps I shall be healed”.

Then, home to England, with Warlock, Bridge and Quilter all represented.
Bullock’s diction was consistently clear in each of the languages she
explored, but particularly so in Quilter’s rhapsodic ‘Fair house of
joy’ and plaintive ‘Autumn evening’; in the latter,
Martineau’s melancholy prelude compellingly haunted the song, before
returning in full in the affecting, elegiac postlude.

Indeed, Martineau was a superb accompanist to Bullock’s dramatic
presentations. Supportive and thoughtful, he enjoyed the piano’s own
musical narratives, effectively entering the drama but never overwhelming the
voice, as in the contrapuntal interweavings of the third stanza of
Duparc’s ‘Chanson triste’ (‘Song of sadness’):
“You will rest my poor head,/ ah! sometimes on your lap,/ and recite to
it a ballad/ that will seem to speak of us.” Particularly touching was
Martineau’s communication of harmonic nuance which intimated feeling and
meaning, subtly but persuasively, as in Duparc’s ‘Romance de
Mignon’ and, especially in Warlock’s ‘Pretty ring
time’, an idiomatic setting of Shakespeare’s ‘It was a lover
and her lass’. Moreover, in the composer’s freely structured
‘PhidylÈ’, it was the piano’s melodic refrain, rhythmic
control and harmonic sureness, as the song passed through a myriad of tonal
centres, that provided coherence through the emotional extremes.

It was however in the first half of the recital, with the songs by Grieg,
Rimsky Korsakov and Brahms, that Bullock’s vocal control and relaxed
confidence were most on display. Throughout these songs she used her strong,
ample voice with sensitivity and restraint, only unleashing its full power in
moments of real intensity and preferring to convey meaning through colour and
the exuberance of her personality. Grieg’s ‘Sechs Lieder
Op.48’ were dedicated to the Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson who, like
Bullock, was a prominent performer in Wagnerian roles. ‘Dereinst, Gedanke
mein’ (‘One day, my thoughts’) is complex both formally and
harmonically, and the performers were perfectly united in their reading of the
rich harmonic colourings of the song, framed as they are by the reflective
stillness of the piano’s opening bars and the simple octave falls of the
close. In contrast, ‘Lauf der Welt’ (‘The way of the
world’) possesses a folksy energy and insouciance, and voice and
accompanist coordinated delightfully throughout, playfully enjoying the
rhythmic flexibilities. Bullock’s fresh open sound and unaffected shaping
of the poetic phrases was outstanding in ‘Die verschwiegene
Nachtigall’ (‘The secretive nightingale’) and ‘Ein
Traum’ (‘A dream’) was characterised by a focused tone of
real warmth and depth; while Martineau’s subtle syncopations endowed
‘Zur Rosenzelt’ (‘Time of roses’) with a suitably
understated intensity and urgency, the delayed final cadence being particularly

Three songs by Rimsky Korsakov followed, moving from the lament-like shadows
of ‘Na kholmakh Gruzii’ (‘The hills of Georgia’), with
its ponderous piano pedals, to the explosive exuberance of ‘Zvonvhe
zhavoronka penye’ (‘The lark sings louder’). But it was in
six songs by Brahms that the real power and precision of Bullock’s voice
became wonderfully evident. Both performers shaped the extreme contrasts within
‘Meine Liebe ist gr¸n’ Op.63 No.5 (‘My love is green’)
with consummate skill and sensitivity; Martineau relished the rhythmic
complexities of ‘Simmer leiser wird mein Schlummer’ Op.105 No.2
(‘My sleep grows ever quieter’) while Bullock opened her voice to
its expressive heights in the final cry, “If you would see me once
again,/ come soon, some soon!” The control of dramatic tension in
‘O w¸flt ich doch den Weg zur¸ck’ Op. 63 No.8 (‘Ah! if I but
knew the way back’) was outstanding: and, as the poet-speaker longs to
regain his childhood’s vision – “not to see the times
change,/ to be a child a second time” – Bullock’s lyricism
was heart-melting. The gentle, easeful fluency of ‘Wir wandelten’
Op.96 No.2 (‘We were walking’) contrasted with the infectious
vivacity of ‘Das M‰dchen spricht’ Op. 107 No.3 (‘The maiden
speaks’), whose sprightly, springing rhythms brought the first half of
the recital to such a vibrant close.

The chilling evening frost and the lure of Christmas shopping may have
accounted for the rather reduced audience numbers, but this was a real treat
and one hopes that another five years do not pass before Bullock returns to the
Wigmore Hall stage.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Susan Bullock [Photo by Anne-Marie Le BlÈ courtesy of HarrisonParrott]
product_title=Susan Bullock, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Susan Bullock, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Monday 13th December 2010
product_id=Above: Susan Bullock [Photo by Anne-Marie Le BlÈ courtesy of HarrisonParrott]