Songs and duets of Schumann and Chopin

Soprano Gillian Zammit

The Poet Speaks on the 9th July 2010 is a celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Schumann and Chopin.

Schumann’s way to his role as important composer of songs was through his dual activities as journalist and as pianist. In Schumann’s songs, the piano is as important as is the voice and, more so, through the medium of the piano, the composer addresses the nuances of the text as had few composers before him. Jean Paul, on whom Schumann modeled his literary style, said of music that “no colour is as romantic as a tone”, a sentiment with which Schumann agreed and which he applied to his works for voice as well as those for piano solo. This same sentiment was echoed by E.T.A. Hoffmann who described how, in delirium, he felt the effect of colours, tones and odours. One almost experiences a musical equivalent of Thomas de Quincey’s visions here although with the opium of music as the means to the vision. Alone, in the song “Waldesgespräch” (Dialogue in the Forest) you can hear the parallel with Goethe’s “Erlkönig” (Erl King) and with Franz Schubert’s masterful setting. Schumann was a much more refined composer than his younger colleague. Schumann’s setting of “Waldesgespräch” dates from the year 1840 while Schubert’s “Erlkönig” was written in 1821. What is most interesting here is, however, the choice of poet, Josef von Eichendorff. Eichendorff was not only a major figure of Romantic Era literature but also a life-long admirer of Goethe, the author of the text to “Erlkönig”. From the 1830s until his death in 1857, Eichendorff occupied himself with analyses of Goethe’s work and of his art. It is entirely probable that his poem, “Waldesgespräch” was conceived as a tribute to Goethe’s work, written in 1782, or 40 years before.

While the songs of Schumann represent the pinnacle of this art, those of Chopin are no less important as his very personal expression of Polish patriotism. Chopin was predominantly a composer of piano music and of miniatures. Of his works, only the two piano concertos and three of his four sonatas evidence any attempt at extended formal structures. Still, his Cello Sonata represents one of the most significant sonata duets of the mid-19th century. The reason is to be found in the vocal nature of the cello and in the folk song roots from which his art sprung. This was Chopin’s strength and it is to be found in each of his songs. Although the poets were not of the calibre of those chosen by Schumann, Chopin’s music for the voice preserves his Polish heritage, both in word and in tone, and is a mirror image of his keyboard works.

In any regard, the miniatures of Chopin and of Schumann both reveal the lyrical and deeply poetic nature of these fine composers and, especially in the case of Chopin, a passionate nationalism. At the end of his life, Chopin’s remains were interred in France but his heart, the seat of his love for all things Polish, was preserved in champagne and return by France to the Polish people where it now lies. In this simple statement lies the substance of his art.

The Performers

Soprano Gillian Zammit began her vocal training in Malta with Antoinette Miggiani and Paul Asciak before moving to Italy where she studied with Carlo Bergonzi and Victoria de los Angeles. Ms Zammit is a versatile performer with an operatic repertoire that ranges from Baroque to 20th century works. She has appeared in many productions, among “Semele” and “The Turn of the Screw” with the English Opera Company, Opera Parnassus, as well as “The Tales of Hoffmann”, “Gianni Schicchi” and “Hansel and Gretel” with the Malta Opera Company. She is a regular performer at Malta‘s National Theatre, the Manoel Theatre, and her most recent production there was as Gilda in their 2006 Opera Festival production of “Rigoletto” for which she received glowing reviews from Opera magazine. She has worked with various conductors, among them Peter Stark, Paolo Ciardi, Brain Schembri and Michael Laus. Gillian Zammit is highly regarded as a recital singer and has mastered a varied repertoire of Lieder, Spanish and French song, as well as being n accomplished exponent of the music of the Maltese Baroque. She has recorded four CDs of this music as part of a series celebrating the Maltese Cultural Heritage.  Performances abroad include recitals in Germany, in New York‘s Alice Tully Hall and in London‘s St. Martin in-the-Fields. Gillan Zammit is also involved with young singers, training a children‘s choir called The Drama Troup Choir which performs extensively in Malta. Performances with the choir have included “Carmina Burana”, “A Ceremony of Carols” and “Messiah”. She is also a trained and accomplished pianist, having earned her ALCM diploma in pianoforte.

Clifford Bechtel, tenor, began his vocal career at the age of 8 with the St.Luke’s Episcopal Boys„ Choir. As a student, he was honored with a merit scholarship from the Peabody Conservatory of Music where he was the star pupil of the legendary John Shirley-Quirk.  At 20, he appeared in the role of Gaston with the Lancaster Opera. In recent years, he has been a regular soloist with the ConcertOPERA and with other opera companies in such roles as Fenton in “Falstaff”, Eisenstein in “Die Fledermaus”, Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” and Rodolfo in “La Bohème”. He appears frequently as soloist in Mendelssohn„s Elijah, Handel’s Messiah, Bruckner’s Te Deum and Mozart’s Requiem as well as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Clifford Bechtel received the first prize in the Dorothy Darr and Frederick Robinson Vocal Competition as well as in the vocal competition of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. In addition to his studies at the Peabody Conservatory, he is also the recipient of the A.J. Fletcher Music Scholarship from the Brevard Music Center. His voice has been compared with that of the legendary Fritz Wunderlich and praised as one with maturity, projected softness, flexibility and absolute control. Clifford Bechtel lives together with his wife and daughter in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Rosetta Debattista is a graduate of the Royal College of Music and Surrey University where she specialised in Music Therapy. A versatile musician, she is involved in several musical and educational activities on the local scene. Her love of working with other musicians led her into theworld of accompaniment – an art she is now best renowned for. Her main mentor in this field wasRobert Sutherland, accompanist to Maria Callas. Rosetta has performed extensively in the UK andin Malta with Maltese and International soloists. She was repeatedly invited to play at thePresident’s Palace, The Manoel Theatre, The Mediterranean Conference Centre and St. James’Centre for Creativity. She also gave concerts in Denmark, Italy and Germany. Last year she was thepiano soloist in Beethoven’s wind quintet performed by the Cosmos Ensemble at the ManoelTheatre. To name a few other local performances, Rosetta coached and performed in “Side by Sideby Sondheim” (a musical written for two pianists and cast), at the Manoel Theatre and presentedfour programmes in the Gozo Arts Festival. Rosetta also acted as musical director/coach for thecasts of the theatrical productions of “Chicago”, “On the Seduction of Angels”, “Side by Side bySondheim” and “Company” as well as the children’s productions of “Honk” and “Oliver” with FMProductions. She co-produced and directed “Skakkumatt” at the Manoel theatre in 2008.

Catch The Poet Speaks – Songs & Duets of Schumann & Chopin on 9th July.
Gillian Zammit – Soprano; Clifford Bechtel – Tenor; Rosetta de Battista – Piano
Auberge de Castille Courtyard, Valletta.  21.00hrs.  Free entrance.

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