Friday 21 October 2022

An evening of story-telling: soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha & pianist Simon Lepper at Wigmore Hall

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha at Wigmore Hall (image from live stream)
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha at Wigmore Hall (image from live stream)

Mahler, Liszt, Wagner, Barber, Le Roux Marais, traditional; Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, Simon Lepper; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 19 October 2022 (★★★★)

Highly communicative with a wonderfully burnished, luxurious voice and a real joy in story telling, the South African soprano moved easily from 19th century German repertoire, to 20th century American, to South African and more traditional songs

South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha has made something of a speciality recently of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 2015 and this work formed the centre piece of her recital at Wigmore Hall (her first full recital at the hall, I believe) on Wednesday 19 October 2022 with pianist Simon Lepper. Rangwanasha and Lepper began with songs from Mahler's Das Knaben Wunderhorn, followed by Liszt's Lorelei (with its pre-echoes of Tristan und Isolde), leading to a sequence of Wagner including three Wesendonck Lieder. In the second half the Barber was followed by two South African songs and a selection of spirituals.

Rangwanasha won the Song Prize at Cardiff Singer of the World in 2021, and whilst her voice is clearly operatic in scope, she is highly accomplished and communicative on the recital stage. Singing everything from memory, this was in many ways an evening of story-telling, and whilst Rangwanasha's wonderful burnished, brilliant and luxuriant voice was centre stage, her expressive face and eyes told a lot too. That said, the concluding sequence of the evening, when she sang South African composer Stephanus Le Roux Marais's song Mali die slaaf se lied, the traditional South African song Thula Baba and a group of spirituals, had a remarkable sense of energy and freedom, something that continued to build in the encores, a further spiritual and the 'Click song' in this latter she was spontaneously joined in duet by a gentleman in the audience! The result had a vibrancy, energy and sheer sense of enjoyment; you wished that she could find a way of bringing some of this freedom into her Western classical repertoire.

We began with Mahler's Das Knaben Wunderhorn, 'Rheinlegendchen' was full of charm and her enjoyment of telling a story, and throughout the Mahler the dark brilliance of her voice brought out a richness in the music. 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen' had a remarkable sense of focus, of being centred, yet she and Lepper made the emotional temperature rise and the whole was rather mesmerising. 'Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? was full of charm and delight, showing of her engaging personality and ability to spin Mahler's remarkable passagework.

Liszt's 1841 song, Die Loreley is remarkable for its pre-echoes of Wagner's Tristan, yet the vocal narration can sometimes lapse into conventionality too, but Rangwanasha and Lepper brought a slow build to the piece, developing to a terrific climax and giving us a gripping narrative. It was certainly a good idea to link Liszt' Wagner-evoking song with Wagner's own songs via one of Liszt's Wagner transcriptions. I am not entirely certain that 'Elsa's Traum' from Liszt's Aus Lohengrin was quite the right one. However, Simon Lepper brought out the transparent magic of Liszt's piano writing and highlighted the poetry of the piece.

Rangwanasha sang three of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder including the two most linked to Tristan. 'Der Engel' calmly unfolded before us, showcasing Rangwanasha's vibrant musical line, and her care of the words. 'Im Treibhaus' with its evocations of the world of Tristan, was intimate and centred, with both Rangwanasha and Lepper creating atmosphere from very little. And finally, 'Traume' was all stillness and concentrated with beautiful tone.

For the second half we began in the twentieth century, with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Rangwanasha began in a relaxed manner, all the time in the world for detail, yet there was vibrant tone too. She was a real story-teller here, enjoying the descriptions, the gossip, allowing the voice to blossom at key moments. The more dramatic moments were strongly contrasted, particularly by Lepper in the piano, whilst throughout the piece Rangwanasha gave us that sense of rapture that underlies the whole piece. I have just one quibble; this is quite a wordy, text-based piece and we rather needed the printed words as though Rangwanasha worked hard at it, the text was somewhat occluded.

After this we moved to Rangwanasha's native South Africa. First a song by South African composer Stephanus le Roux Marais (1896-1979), a pioneer of Afrikaans art song. Mali die slaaf se lied (Mali the slave's song) dates from 1932. Gentle, lyrical and melancholy, it combined the folk and the classical, simple but effective and Rangwanasha really held our attention here. This was followed by a traditional South African song, ThulaBaba, here in an arrangement by Iain Farrington. We were very much in the world of folk song as art song, and beautifully done it was too.

This mood continued with the spirituals, where Rangwanasha and Lepper were unashamedly art song in their approach. We heard four, each flowing into the other and none overstaying its welcome, Nobody Knows, Steal Away Fill by cup Lord, Rise up in the Chariot. Beautifully sung, with Rangwanasha using the repeats of verses to add improvisatory freedom to the vocal line.

The audience response was rapturous, and we were treated to two songs, another spiritual He's got the whole world in his hands, and the Click Song. This latter was rendered far from hackneyed by Rangwanasha's fine delivery, the way she interacted with the spontaneous contribution from a gentleman in the audience who certainly knew what he was doing. Pure delight.

The recital is available to stream on the Wigmore Hall website.

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