Mervyn Grand and Deborah Bideau have shared some impressive territory in the musical life of the island.
He, as highly qualified Head of the Guernsey Music Service (now retired), has conducted the Guernsey Youth Orchestra internationally, and performs regularly on piano and violin. Debbie is now Faculty Head of Performing Arts at Guernsey Grammar School and Sixth Form Centre, has an MA in Music, studied Voice under some of the UK’s most illustrious tutors, and conducts a range of orchestras, bands and choirs besides an impressive range of solo performances.
Shared by both Mervyn and Debbie is a mission to guide and inspire Guernsey’s young musicians into the full expression of their talents.
All the passion and precision that requires, plus the ability to communicate with and inspire an audience, was there to be seen in their recent performance of Lieder at St James. As we were told, ‘there is something intrinsically private about the Lied… the simple setting for piano and voice evoke the intimacy of a Salon’, where invited guests would listen and discuss musical performances in someone’s home. The current seating at St James – grouped around circular tables and served by a bar – really did give that sense of a party laid on for our enjoyment, to be appreciated amongst friends. (This being Guernsey, that wasn’t far from the truth!)
Lieder tend to muse on love, longing and closeness to Nature. The uncharacteristically-introspective character of Mozart’s opening Abendempfindung expressed that with great beauty and delicacy by both performers, giving free rein to Debbie’s wide vocal range.
Beethoven’s song ‘To the Distant Beloved’ Op.98, is usually sung by a tenor. Transposed for Debbie’s rich and supple soprano, we could hear the pain of separation in the way she coloured the phrasing, vacillating between hope and longing for the unattainable.
The accompanist to songs of such inwardness and self-revealing vulnerability has to be listening and responding to the smallest clues of timing and nuance. It is a role which can make or break a performance. The integration of the piano – its seamless shadowing and framing of the singer’s dramatic sense, whether in elasticity of phrasing, tranquil contemplation, joy or turmoil, requires lashings of empathy as well as technical skill. This was very apparent in Mervyn’s playing; never more than in the Schubert songs that followed. Ganymed and Gretchen, both written when Schubert was a young man, are astonishingly mature (though very different); the narrative feel as Gretchen agonises over Faust’s offer, builds and builds our unease in the piano’s rolling rhythm of the spinning wheel.
The songs which Richard Strauss wrote as love-offerings to his wife are some of the most poignantly exquisite I’ve heard. Tender and tremulous, they acknowledge the precious frailty of happiness and the dread power of death to destroy it. In this performance of three of them, Morgen, Die Nacht and Allerseelen, no-one could have sat unmoved by the ardor and the lyrical beauty of voice and piano, weaving their shimmering web as though from a single instrument. I found them mesmerising, and the pause before the applause while the audience recollected where they were, suggested I wasn’t alone. We needed the interval to restore our composure.
One of the greatest of all song cycles, Frauenliebe und Leben, was composed by Schumann in the year he married his former pupil, Clara Wieck, despite her father’s obstructions. It follows the arc of a young girl’s love and heartbreak, and as a much-loved classic, raises a high bar for performers. Opening with ‘Since I Saw Him’, a delicate hesitancy in the piano reflected her girlish timidity, the fear she was imagining things alternating with growing devotion, and misery at the emptiness of life in his absence. In ‘He the Most Magnificent of All’, she is clearly smitten, euphoric and impatient, yet still not convinced this hero of her dreams can care for her. When she sings ‘I Can’t Grasp or Believe It’ in wondering disbelief that her love reciprocates her feelings, we actually can believe it, thanks to the way these two performers shape the heartfelt message in a voice throbbing with emotion and a cascade of sweet-sour harmonies.
‘Thou Ring on My Finger’ declares the practical realisation of her dream, and the swelling excitement continues through the pre-wedding bustle of ‘Help Me Ye Sisters’. A subtler mood pervades ‘Sweet Friend, Thou Gazest’ in the tender intimacy of pillow-talk, as a wife tells her husband of her pregnancy. There is a sense of yearning towards the future, Debbie’s pure soprano winding above and below the piano in a way that makes them equal partners in loving rapprochement. ‘At My Heart, At My Breast’ is the blissful outcome, contentment and confidence transparent in every note.
It can’t last. ‘Now For the First Time, You Have Given Me Pain’ tells of the unbearable torment of losing her beloved partner. This requires a radical shift in relationship, both with the music and the audience. Now we had a sense of tremulous reproach as voice and piano fractured and retreated into their own agonised worlds. We could only observe in helpless pity from outside. Mervyn is not afraid of pauses, which gave needed space for listeners to feel the full weight of the unassuageable ache hanging in the air.
Debbie moved between these mercurial and profound emotions with agility and credibility, engaging us all through her warmly expressive tone and sense of theatre. Interestingly the very final sentence of the tragedy was spoken by the piano. A deeply affecting performance.