Festival Music

Golda Schultz and Jonathan Ware

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

THERE must be some head-scratching going on in Festival HQ over the fluctuating attendances at events this year. For every packed sell-out there are concerts like this, one of the poorest attendances I can recall at the Queen’s Hall morning chamber music series.

It is very hard to understand: Golda Schulz was the lead in Errollyn Wallen’s acclaimed Dunedin Consort commission Dido’s Ghost at last year’s Festival. She has sung Mozart and will return for Donizetti at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and she was the star soloist in 2020’s Last Night of the Proms on television.

She also brought a fascinating programme to Edinburgh this year, in partnership with pianist Jonathan Ware. This Be Her Verse was a celebration of women composers that began with Clara Schumann and her recently rediscovered contemporary Emilie Mayer, and included Yeats, Blake, and Masefield settings by Rebecca Clarke and Verlaine, Bataille, and Maeterlinck by Nadia Boulanger on the way to the new commissions of the title, a trio of witty and moving songs by Kathleen Tagg and poet and librettist Lila Palmer.

There were gems throughout. Clara Schumann’s Am Strande sets Wilhelm Gerhard’s German version of Musing on the Roaring Ocean by Robert Burns, with Ware evoking the sea at the piano, as he was required to do by other composers during the set. The Mayer songs were an even better showcase for the singer’s powerful voice, and the Clarke ones for her theatrical skills, wide-eyed and expressive on Tyger! Tyger! and more ambiguous on the sinister lullaby, Cradle Song.

John Masefield’s The Seal Man, Clara Schumann’s Lorelei and Emilie Mayer’s Erlkonig II may have included a switch in language from English back to German but Schulz’s storytelling made them seem like three chapters of the same narrative. Her diction was equally fine on a further switch to French for the Boulanger songs, with a gentler sea in Verlaine’s La me rest plus belle and some of the recital’s loveliest melodies.

Ware shed his jacket and had his hands inside the piano, plucking and strumming, to produce the range of sonic colour required for the new songs. After Philip Larkin, Wedding, and Single Bed are expressions of 21st century female experience that brought plenty laughter and perhaps a few tears. Commissioned by Schulz and Ware, they are a great addition to the singer’s repertoire and made a splendid climax to this concert, the enthusiastic response rewarded with an Amy Beach encore.

Why, though, was this week’s appearance by the Dunedin Consort at the same hour in the same venue so busy, when so few booked to hear their South African star from last year the following day? Edinburgh needs to pull its socks up if it is choosing to support only the home team at the International Festival. That is not a good look at all.