Thursday 28 November 2013

Songs of Home - Njabulo Madlala

Songs of Home - Njabulo Madlala / William Vann - CHRCD071
Most lieder singers who come from a background where their native tongue is something other than German or French tend to try an include a set in their own language, often using folk-song to create relaxed final set. In the case of Anglophone singers using either folk-song or English song, this is often the first time that they have sung in the audience's native language. But, as anyone who has been to on of Njabulo Madlala's recitals knows, Madlala rather turns this upon its head. UK trained but born and brought up in South Africa (in Durban) the final sets of Madlala's recitals are often made up of South African songs, with English song taking its place in the body of the recital along with the German lied.

This is reflected in his new disc, he is accompanied by William Vann in a programme which mixes South African songs with lieder by Strauss, Schubert and Schumann, and songs by Roger Quilter, RVW and Herbert Howells, plus a spiritual. The disc's title Songs of Home reflects the programme, a sense of the singer's very personal journey. From the songs of his native South Africa learned from his grandmother, through German lied learned originally from a recording his grandmother gave him through to the English song of his adopted country. In many ways it is quite a daring programme, but one that works because Madlala and Vann treat each song with equal care and the programme is a testament to both their commitment and to the beauty of Madlala's voice.

The South African songs are in a variety of languages (including Xhosa with its range of clicks) and they vary from the traditional (with no known composer) to the popular (a known composer but the song has become absorbed into popular tradition). On this disc, they have undergone a process of art-song-ification akin to what happened to English folk-song in the early years of the 20th century. It is a way of making the songs fit into a recital. But that there are other ways of performing them I learned when Madlala and some other South African singers gave a recital in aid of Madlala's Amazwi Omzansi Africa / Voices of South Africa Project project, and the singers' infectious performance of these songs took them far closer to their origins.

Madlala and Vann open with Thula Sizwe (Be still my country) an Apartheid-era Zulu lullaby, a gently melodic song which Madlala starts from nothing. Malaika (Angel, I love you) is a Swahili song written by Fadhili William, a Kenyan musician who recorded the song in 1963. The word 'malaika' can mean angel or baby or small child so the song is something of a lullaby, a gently melodic piece with a lovely swing to it. The quietly affecting Latutshon' Ilanga (When the sung goes down) is by Makwenkwe 'Mackay' Davashe, one of South Africa's most prominent jazz musicians, who died in Soweto in 1972. Thula baba.. Thula sana (Hush, sleep little baby) is a traditional lullaby, at first gently rhythmic and melodic, there is a fascinating section where Vann's piano holds the melody line and Madlala's contribution is purely rhythmic.

Strauss's Allerseelen (All Soul's Day) would seem to be something of a stretch, but somehow it works. Madlala sings with lovely tone, a fabulous sense of line and in a highly restrained manner with some beautifully floated upper notes. Even during the climax in the third verse his tonal beauty remains. Heimlich Afforderung (Secret Invitation) is similarly rounded in tone, and he shows how he can fine his voice right down but keep the words utmost, quietly intense. The final Strauss song is Morgen (Tomorrow), a song which is commonly associated with the female voice but which Strauss himself recorded with a man. The way Madlala's voice just sidles in on the voice's opening phrase is lovely. He sings in a quietly hushed, but intense tone, again with a lovely ease to the upper register.

Next a pair of Schubert songs. Liebesbotschaft (Love's message) is understated and confiding, with wonderful control. Wandrers Nachtlied II (Wanderer's Nightsong) is calm and poised, again with beautiful control.

Thula gugu lami (Hush treasure) is another traditional song, a rather calmly beautiful one. Madlala and Vann move from this into Robert Schumann's Belsazar a wonderfully dramatic account of the Biblical story which Madlala brings a strong narrative sense to, progressing from quiet beginnings to intense drama. In the second Schumann song,  Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower) Madlala combines beauty of tone with fine shaping of the vocal line.

Thula S'Thandwa Sami (Sleep my love) is another Apartheid-era Zulu lullaby, calm and lovely. Roger Quilter's Go Lovely Rose sets a text by Edmund Waller (1606-1687). In a nicely understated performance, Madlala brings out the beauty of the vocal line and its sense of rhapsodic passion. In Quilter's O Mistress Mine setting Shakespeare, Madlala combines liveliness with an appealing sense of painting the words.

RVW's Linden Lea is perhaps the best known English song on the disc, lovely hear it sung in Madlala's beautiful chestnut tones. Let Beauty Awake is from RVW's cycle of Robert Louis Stevenson settings Songs of Travel, to which Madlala brings a lovely rhapsodic feel, making the song very touching. Herbert Howells King David is a large scale, complex song (complete with an amazing passage in imitation of a nightingale). Madlala and Vann travel from quietness to intense passion.

The Spiritual Deep River starts from slow calm, with quiet intensity and builds to passionate power. It is followed by a pair of songs in the Xhosa language, both traditional songs intended partly to help children practice the clicks of the Xhosa language. Baxabene oxamu (A dispute) is a nonsense song which Madlala sings unaccompanied. Qongqothawane  (Knock-knock beetle) is sung at weddings to bring good fortune. Both are infectiously delightful.

Shosholoza (Go Forward) is a Ndebele folk-song which has become South Africa's second national anthem. It originates with Ndebele-speaking migrant workers and was taken up by Zulu workers as well, Madlala's performance is lively and rather infectious. The disc concludes with Nkosi Sikeli iAfrika (God Bless Africa) a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement and the anthem for the African National Congress.

Throughout Madlala is finely supported by Vann's piano playing who shows himself equally as sympathetic and idiomatic in the South African songs as the English song and the German lied.

This is a slightly unlikely, but highly imaginative disc. The different songs on it are linked by Madlala's personality, commitment, beautiful voice and the finely intelligent performances.

Songs of Home
Traditional - Thula Sizwe [3.31]
Fadhili William (1938 - 2001) - Malaika [3.38]
Mackay Davache (1920 - 1972) - Lakutshon' Ilanga [2.24]
Traditional - Thula Baba... Thula Sana [4.10]
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) - Allerseelen [3.17]
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) - Heimliche Aufforderung [3.39]
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) - Morgen [4.04]
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) - Liebesbotschaft [2.51]
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) - Wandrers Nachtlied [2.24]
Traditional - Thula Gugu Lami [3.28]
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) - Belsazar [5.24]
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) - Du bist wie eine Blume [1.48]
Traditional - Thula S'Thandwa Sami [2.34]
Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953) - Go Lovely Rose [2.56]
Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953) - O Mistress Mine [1.42]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958) - Linden Lea [2.38]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958) - Let beauty awake [1.59]
Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983) - King David [4.54]
Traditional - Deep River [2.38]
Traditional - Baxabene Oxamu [1.42]
Traditional - Quogqothwane [2.52]
Traditional - Shosholoza [3.00]
Traditional - Nkosi Sikelel' Iafrika [2.53]
Ndjabul Madlala (baritone)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded 25 -27 November 2013 in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex.

Songs of Home; Njabulo Madlala and William Vann
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 28 2013
Rating: 4.0
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