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Reviews/Music

Virtuosic Vocals

25 August 2019

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘An Evening with Gun-Brit Barkmin’⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 23 August ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

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Gun-Brit Barkmin carried all before her in last year’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and many were looking forward to this recital of Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Wagner.

The German soprano, young in career terms, did not disappoint, with each item leaving one wishing more of the same, only to be carried on to new heights with the next. Not only her gleaming silvery voice but her charismatic and enthusiastic stage presence illuminated the works performed, with WASO at its biggest and best under Asher Fisch.

The program opened with a crisp and energetic rendition of Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, followed by Barkmin and Abscheulicher! from that work.  Her very clear soprano with no unnecessary vibrato was powerful and penetrating, and the aria was delivered, as were they all, with full-on dramatic intensity. Nor did she, here or later, let a sheet of music get between her and the audience. Mahler’s Blumine provided a rather inconsequential filler but was delivered with grace and delicacy.

This was followed by Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a work of sumptuous melancholy. Barkmin returned (having traded her basic black pantsuit for a glittery black gown) and embarked on a superbly evocative interpretation. Her voice easily rode the large orchestra, sometimes blending as one special instrument, and on the words ‘und die Seele unbewacht will in freien flügen schweben’ (in Beim Schlafengehen) appropriately soaring above it. In the same movement she lit up the final ‘zu leben’ with a beautiful heartfelt note. Beim Schlafengehen was further distinguished by Laurence Jackson’s violin solo, while Andrew Nicholson delivered a beatific flute in Im Abendrot.

After an interval the orchestra embarked dramatically on the fanfare of the ‘Entrance of the Guests’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Barkmin joined them in delighted wonderment for Dich, teure Halle, which was over only too soon, leaving one wishing for more Wagner. Instead we were assuaged by more Strauss:  ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome (orchestral only!) maintained the excitement and exoticism of this 114 year old work. It was followed by the last soliloquy and final scene from that opera, with Barkmin returning now in glittering white and gold to act out the unhinged passion of the princess of Judea. She sang with controlled legato and emotional intensity, from the triumphant ‘Ich lebe noch, aber du bist tot’ to the electrifying last sentence ‘Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund’.  Rarely has Perth seen a concert with such virtuosic singing and dramatic intensity.

Pictured top: Gun-Brit Barkmin. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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