A fair chunk of Messiaen’s oeuvre was unreservedly sacred in character, but for a colourful composer who was also a devout catholic, there is a small portion of his catalogue that’s decidedly saucy. The titillating myth of Tristan and Isolde inspired a trilogy of works concerning the almost divine quality of love, and its connection with death, oblivion, and transcendence. The strange, love-death ritual of Harawi, a song-cycle based on the Quechua love songs of Peru, is the first in the trilogy, and is a brilliant, dramatic work with all the theatricality you’d expect from Messiaen.
But for all its erotic excitement and virtuosic splendour, sadly, Harawi is rarely performed. Harawi is an incredibly demanding cycle covering a huge emotional gamut, and therefore it’s all the more impressive that a pair of young Australian expats rose to meet the challenges of this torrid work, presenting it in a stunning recital last Tuesday night as part of the Lieder Society of Victoria’s 2017 series.
Mezzo soprano Lotte Betts-Dean’s performance was powerful and lyrical, exhibiting a masterly control of both vocal range and colour. Shifting timbre from ghostly thin incanting to the wild throes of a full-bodied dramatic mezzo, Betts-Dean’s devoted performance captured all the ecstasy and drama of Messiaen’s poetry with a mature artistry. Her dark, angular chanting of Doundou Tchil, as well as the violent cries of the sixth song, Repetition Planetaire, were particular highlights.
Native Hobartian Joseph Havlat brought off Messiaen’s challenging piano writing with aplomb, serving lavish helpings of lush, exotic chords and incredibly well balanced counterpoint. Havlat’s phrasing was always finely shaped and clear, despite the slightly soupy acoustic. There were numerous high points in the performance, but the pair’s management of the frenetic accelerando in the eighth song, Syllabes, was absolutely astounding, and the final song, Dans le noir, completely mesmerising. It is no wonder their daring performance received a unanimous standing ovation.
The pair preceded Harawi with a beautiful performance of Songs of the Exotic, a smart, succinct cycle of works by Judith Weir, current Master of the Queen’s Music. Havlat also pleased with a bright, colourful reading of Francis Poulenc’s breezy, cosmopolitan cycle of piano miniatures, Promenades, based on various modes of transport.