Marie Angel and Sally Whitwell take minimalism to the max at the Adelaide Fest.

Elder Hall, Adelaide

February 22, 2014

Local producer Mark De Raad’s idea of presenting the ABC recording artist and award winning pianist Sally Whitwell as part of the Fringe programme is an inspired one. On a professional level and in terms of repertoire, the recital devoted to Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and others would have easily held its own in the Festival proper.

The first half of the show was devoted in instrumental music that we associate with Sally, broken down into short groups of compositions not only by Philip Glass and Michael Nyman – both of whom she has recorded with great success – but also music from Yann Tiersen’s Satiean score for the whimsical film, Amelie and Elena Kats-Chernin’s popular ‘Russian Rag’ with its dark and brooding Weillian harmonies. All were given impressive performances with great clarity within the those familiar ostinati on which so many of these pieces are based. Even the more familiar pieces were presented with authority and verve, including ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ (The Piano) which ebbed and flowed with passionate yet controlled abandon adding even more to the sense of theatricality and identification offered by the soloists and stage manager. Lighting, costumes and stage sets enhanced musical purposes and identified with Whitwell’s idea of moving away from the elitist expectations that we have come to expect from the ‘recital’ as such.

Ingeniously the Glass, Nyman and Tiersen groupings were bookended by the highly purposeful poetic readings of Alison Croggan by Marie Angel who, with her wide range of vocal characterisations and Whitwell’s improvisations on melodica and toy piano, brought to mind the best in the experiments of the late John Cage and Cathy Berberian. As enjoyable as this first act was, the true highlight came with the Australian premiere of Michael Nyman’s 8 Lust Songs after the Italian renaissance maverick Pietro Aretino.

Nyman’s work has created much controversy since its premiere in 2007, putting off its planned Australian premiere in 2012 due to Aretino’s brusque carnal language – though much of this potential brouhaha this time around was avoided by simply not providing translations of the texts in the programme. Both premiered and recorded with the London based soprano Marie Angel (another under-sung SA export), Nyman’s orchestrated version with his familiar chugging rhythms and often rock music levels of sounds, were passed over for something much more intimate. As Angel herself suggested, in Whitwell’s hands, the work has become much more feminine in approach. For here was a true collaboration of specialists in this type of material. In his earlier works, Nyman has shown a deep familiarity with Purcell and others; and here with piano solo accompaniment, the sheer beauty of his vocal lines shimmer, seduce and soar, bringing to mind the arie antiche with which Aretino himself would have been familiar. Such has been the success of the Lust Songs, that there is already talk of this version travelling, not only to the Eastern States, but perhaps even further afield.