Conor Biggs makes Schubert fizz at the NCH

Michael Dervan, Irish Times, January 18th 2017

 

Belgium-based Irish bass Conor Biggs and his piano partner Michel Stas continued their long journey through Schubert’s songs at the NCH’s Kevin Barry Recital Room on Sunday afternoon. Biggs’s are no ordinary concerts. He introduces the songs with charm, wit and insight, and also with a lively critical perspective. His manner suggests he would make a first-rate broadcaster. 

   The performing style is intimate, more like a presentation to an interested club than a regular public concert, and it really suited the mostly lesser Schubert of Sunday’s programme. 

   I hadn’t heard Biggs in the renovated Barry Room before. His singing benefited from the livelier acoustic, and Stas surely appreciates the new piano, though I still find some of his playing a little rough. 

   Biggs suggested that the performance of Adelwold und Emma (at more than 25 minutes, it’s Schubert’s longest song) was probably an Irish première. The only Irish Times mention of it I can find is in connection with Hyperion’s pioneering recording of all the songs, so perhaps it was.

Who knows, there may be more Irish premières in the next concert on April 23rd. 

Goethe Sandwich with a Schiller Crust :

Schubertreise Continues

 

 

October 20th 2014

 

   One of my top pick's of last year was a recital marking the start of an audacious musical odyssey by bass baritone, Conor Biggs and pianist Michel Stas, a long distance voyage through all 600 or so of Schubert's songs- an epic Schubertreise. My report on the occasion is here .  Part seven of the series took place in the Kevin Barry Room at the National Concert Hall last Sunday afternoon and featured the set of the  composer's songs that exist in several versions . Songs based on Goethe's novel Wilhelmeisterformed the mainstay of the programme and  most of which we learned were originally set for female voices.We heard no less than five  distinct versions of Goethe's Nur Wer die  Sehnsucht kennt  better known to me from Tchaikowsky's None But the Lonely Heart.  In his introduction, Biggs  likened them to being like different versions of Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

 

  If the venture seemed arduous before, the task of committing to memory several not all that  dissimilar  melody lines, to the same set of words struck me as being an extreme challenge. The mood was dark and  melancholy   with most of the songs  hovering around themes of  longing and maiden's lamentations .  Biggs tackled each one with whole hearted commitment.  His drole asides ( a tiresome burglar alarm became a 'cantus firmus')  lightened the mood and gave a  fascinating  glimpse into Schubert's compositional journey with some settings from the composer's earliest work in the lied genre.  It was good to be there for another  stage of  an incredible journey with this compelling duo. The next recital is in January Dublin , surely a highlight of the NCH, new year calendar.

©Cathy Desmond (Cathy's Reviews)

 

Opening recital of Schubertreise in Dublin

 

February 7th 2013 Conor Biggs, Michel Stas National Concert Hall ©Michael Dervan

(Irish Times)

 

The odyssey has begun. Conor Biggs’s performance of the song-cycle

Die Schöne Müllerin at the NCH’s Kevin Barry Room on Sunday

afternoon marked the opening of his 10-year, 35-recital Schubertreise, a

project to perform all of Schubert’s songs in concert. Biggs is not a

singer who trades primarily on beauty of tone. He doesn’t give the 

impression of wanting to bewitch his listeners through gorgeousness of

sound. It’s not that he doesn’t do gorgeous from time to time, shifting

from his slightly grainy norm into a realm of smooth-flowing honey.

It’s just that he’s one of those singers who takes extreme care

to ensure that the vocal line will at all times carry the words and

communicate their import. He allows the words to mould the music and 

inflect its rhythm, rather than the other way around. 

And he thoroughly lives every phrase he sings. Schubert, of course, 

wrote what John Reed has calledhis “parable of the doom that waits on 

innocence in an evil world” for highvoice. Biggs is a bass baritone, and

hearing the cycle in a voice as low as his definitely darkens the

mood and character, not least because the piano part also becomes

thicker and heavier. 

In Biggs’s performance, the suicide of the end seemed all the more

inevitable. 

 

Biggs, Byrne, Ó Cuinneagáin, Turrisi  John Field Room, NCH

©Martin Adams 2008 (Irish Times)

 

This was a welcome fourth instalment of Conor Biggs's series,

What Makes a Great Song? The first three concerts, devoted to

music from Germany, France and Russia, took place last January. Now

it was Italy - a country famous for opera, but which also has a largely

unknown wealth of art-song.The format followed the same successful

pattern. A selection of songs by various composers was supported by

projected slides and commentary; and because the emphasis is on song as a

vehicle for poetry, poets receive as much attention as composers, and each

poem is read before the performance.You can't have Italian song without

a tenor. So, for the first time in the series, there were two singers.

Conor Biggs was joined by the tenor Donal J. Byrne, whose lyric tones

neatly complemented Biggs's bass voice. Throughout this concert,

Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin's pianism showed finesse and musical

intelligence.The poems were read by Francesco Turrisi; and his

inherently musical intonation reminded me of a wistful comment

written more than 300 years ago by John Dryden, who, when he was

struggling with the problems inherent in writing quality English verse

suited to musical setting, declared that Italian seemed to be invented for

music and poetry.Exactly! Although Conor Biggs was marginally less

native-sounding in Italian than in the other languages he had

presented, this concert was an authentic voyage of discovery. Gems by

Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti, Mercadante and even the very non-Italian

Schubert and Liszt, came across as if transported directly from their

places of birth.The songs were written for the salons of France, Germany

and Italy; and those are now long-gone. But this impeccably crafted and

presented evening opened their doors just enough for us to

understand their nature, and the expressive world of this music. 

 

Biggs, Ó Cuinneagáin in the John Field Room, NCH

 31st January 2008 ©Martin Adams (Irish Times)

 

“This was the last of three concerts exploring the art songs of Germany,France and

Russia. The first two were impressive in their presentation of music, spoken

commentary, and slides illustrating the people andculture involved. However, this

concert had the edge in performance of thesongs. Conor Biggs seemed to make the

music spring from the poetry, anaim he cherishes and which reflects the sequence

of events when the composer wrote the music. To some extent, this was because of

Biggs’sremarkable fluency in the Russian language. It was also because Russian

composers strove to write with a deep awareness of the language’s inflections. But

more than anything, it was because Biggs sang as if he was a Russian who just

happened to be born in Ireland. Even more than when he sings in German

(a language in which he has long been fluent), he seemed to contain the soul of the

poetrywithin himself. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov had a prominent place in the

programme, and rightly so. The musical and expressive insights that these composers

showed left you in no doubt of the music’s purpose and status. Although it was

written for domestic performance, light and pleasing parlour music it is not.

The impeccable partnership between the singer and the pianist, Pádhraic

Ó Cuinneagáin, was especially valuable in the sinister song that opens Mussorgsky’s

Songs and Dances of Death. Kolybyel’naya means “lullaby”, but the child’s sleep is

the sleep of death, and the way in which these musicians portrayed Mussorgsky’s

dialogue between Mother and Death was full of scary insight.This was a rewarding

evening. If more of the world’s great artists had Conor Biggs’s artistic intelligence,

music would be vastly enriched.

 

Biggs, Ó Cuinneagáin in the John Field Room, NCH, Dublin Thursday 24 January

2008  ©Martin Adams (Irish Times)

 

The second in Conor Biggs’ s series “What Makes a Great Song?” was devoted to

French song. Like last week’s programme devoted to German song, this one lived up

to its billing as “a voyage of discovery”.One of Biggs’s most engaging aspects is to

make it seem as if he is still exploring the music and the information he wishes to

present, thanks to his knack with the informal bon-mot, as when he described

Saint-Saëns 1852 song Le pas d’armes du Roi Jean as “a French song in German wine

skins”, and when he was describing the distinctively French aspects of Fauré’s style.

During his introductory chat about Au cimetière he started singing a portion of it; and

then he seamlessly metamorphosed Fauré’s mellifluous lines into a portion of

plainchant, as a manuscript of that ancient music was projected onto a screen.

Everyone learned something valuable, and in a way that was utterly memorable.

Biggs’s formula for this voyage worked effortlessly. After a brief introduction to each

composer and poet, the poems were read by Biggs’s wife Myriam Sosson. To this

task she brought a musicality of speech that made the poetry sound exactly as is must

have been for the composer - the starting point for composition.The partnership

between Biggs and Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin had that inseparable, common identity

that comes when musicians have worked together for many years. From the

French-Teutonic Saint-Saëns, to the true Frenchness of his younger contemporary

Duparc, and from the image-rich suggestiveness of Debussy to the brilliant artifice of

Ravel, this was a voyage full of memorable vistas.

 

Biggs, Ó Cuinneagáin in the John Field Room, NCH, Dublin Wednesday 16 January

2008  ©Martin Adams (Irish Times)

 

"I took up singing because I thought it would be easy." So quipped Conor Biggs before

the last song in this remarkable recital, the first in a three-part, unconventional

exploration of the song traditions of Germany, France and Russia —

"What Makes a Great Song?" About 26 years ago that same song, Wolf's

Fühlt meine Seele, had been the first thing Biggs sang in public. "What can I have been

thinking of?" he said.All that says much about Biggs as an artist. Although he is

brimming with wit, he's a driven man, incapable of doing anything superficially;

his intelligence and vocal ability mean that he can deliver what he strives for. In this case

it was a conspectus of German song from the 18th century to the early 20th century.

Biggs wants his audience to absorb "the inner music of the spoken word" as well as the

song, for we often get to know a poem through the song, whereas it should be the

other way round. So he introduced each item with informal yet deeply informed

comments about the poet, the composer and their backgrounds, complete with

projected pictures to personify their names. He talked briefly about the music, with

a helping hand from Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin's piano playing. He read the poems

with the flair of a native German speaker. And then, in the song, poetry was

transformed into music.This was a fluent, complete package, thanks to the

impeccable partnership between theses two musicians, and to Bigg's remarkable ability

to inform his audience without talking down. Along the way we encountered music

familiar and rare, by Beethoven, Neefe, CPE Bach, Mozart, Zelter, Schubert, Schumann,

Brahms, Strauss and Wolf. And among these were some rare gems, including a

beautiful Passionslied by CPE Bach.

 

Dublin, February 2007 Schubert – Winterreise  ©Andrew Johnstone (Irish Times)

 

Bass-baritone Conor Biggs is an artist who puts the music first. His response to the

audience’s rousing ovation for this performance of Winterreise was to hold high the

score and point to the composer’s name. But he had already made his ardent

devotion to Schubert abundantly clear. This was his only recourse to the score. He

knows these 24 songs backwards – literally, it turned out, because a freak page-turn

caused his redoubtable accompanist Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin to play No 19 before

No 18. But who cared? We got to hear No 19 a second time. Apart from the flawless

memory, the impeccable preparedness and the limpid German diction, what struck

you about Biggs was his unusual knack of getting straight to the point. In every

song’s first syllable, the mood, the persona and the vocal colour were all immediately

present and particular. If his highest notes could err on the rowdy side, that was

because of the depth and precedence of emotion. Ó Cuinneagáin made the most of

his baby grand’s limited dynamics and rough damping, and turned out exactly the

shape of accompaniment that Biggs required. There’s conspicuous affinity between

these two musicians, and their tastes and talents found a close fit with Schubert’s

seminal cycle of Romantic songs.

 

Dublin, January 2007: Tchaikovsky songs ©Andrew Johnstone (Irish Times)

 

To say that bass-baritone Conor Biggs and pianist Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin were

well-prepared for this concert would be an understatement. With seven

out of fourteen items taken from their recent disc of Tchaikovsky songs, their

programme was consistently ready and fluent. Their mostly Russian selections

were neatly arranged like a Russian doll, with an outer layer of Rachmaninov and an

inner one of Tchaikovsky. At the centre, and receiving its first performance, was a

song-cycle by English composer Andrew Wise, who, like Biggs, is a resident of Belgium.

Tackling three Auden poems from the 1930s, Wise’s cycle is in a colourful and aptly

new-tonal idiom that’s reminiscent of art-deco modernism. An arioso-like setting of

Musée des Beaux Arts brings out the poem’s semantics rather than its irregular

rhymes and metres, while Roman Wall Blues and Autumn Song capitalise on the crisper

prosody of two sardonic ballad texts – the one swinging with mock cabaret fun, the

other a finely crafted series of variations. It’s not unknown for leading vocalists to refer

to a score during song recitals. Biggs, however, had committed this new material to

memory – as he had the swathes of Russian verse. His preparedness extended from

the mental realm to the vocal, with the initial vowel of every song hitting its

mark of grit, tenderness or trepidation. In a repertory that’s popularly associated

with the rumblings of bassi profundi, Bigg’s svelte tones and Ó Cuinneagáin’s

polished and artfully scaled accompaniments made for a satisfying mix, both

technically and emotionally, of gravitas and agility.

 

"Conor Biggs has an uncanny ability to empathise with the works he performs and the

rare gift of giving equal value to words and music... it would be hard to

conceive a better interpretation of the music than that presented by this combination

of singer and pianist".

(Irish Times, 3/9/02)

 

"...probably the best singing by an Irish singer that I have heard in a long time."

(Irish Times,Sept. 1990)

 

"...this was a remarkable demonstration of vocal skill and intelligent musicianship.

I look forward to hearing more of Conor Biggs in the future; watch out for the next

opportunity of hearing him."

(Sunday Tribune,Jan. 1991)

 

"The most rewarding recital of German Lieder by Irish performers that I have heard

in years"

(Irish Times, 14/1/91)

 

"Conor Biggs graaft diep" (De Gentenaar)"...wat Conor Biggs presteerde in

 

de cyclus Schwanengesang grensde aan grote kunst... De droeve, soms bittere

toon, het nostalgisch verlangen naar de verdwenen geliefde was treffend,

emotioneel maar beheerst."

 

"... Conor Biggs displayed remarkable resources of feeling;

it was as if he was giving voice to his own thoughts."

(Irish Times, 9/4/02)

 

“Strong story-telling abilities…the (Brahms) folksongs were performed with style and a

dramatic intensity that was a credit to singer and pianist” (Irish Times)

 

“The crown of the evening was the song-cycle “O to Be a Dragon” (Kevin O’Connell). Conor Biggs gave a

mesmerising performance, moving from speechlike song to songlike speech to pure song and all with the wide

variety of gesture asked for by the composer.” (Irish Times, 17/4/02)

 

“... Conor Biggs, à la voix chaleureuse, sut interpréter sa partition avec toute la sobriété requise . »

(Vers l’Avenir, 6/4/00)

 

« La sérénité devant la mort s’impose au croyant, comme affirmait avec conviction samedi la basse Conor Biggs

dans une prosodie parfaitement intelligible. »

(Ouest-France, 11/0/99)

 

“Biggs can act with his voice alone and Schubert’s rarely heard setting of the Cathedral scene from

Goethe’s « Faust » gave further proof of his skill, but the most impressive of all were those philosophical

poems of the younger Goethe, « Prometheus » and « Grenzen der Menscheit.” (Irish Times, 20/4/99)

 

“The magisterial conviction of bass Conor Biggs in Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death...”

(Irish Times, 12/3/99)

 

“In his all-Schumann programme Conor Biggs showed such empathy with both words and music that one

almost felt in the presence of poet and composer. The words, sung with greatest understanding, were heightened

by the music, and the music was heightened by the performance, which stressed the private nature of the

song-cycles.” (Irish Times, 18/2/98)

 

(Monteverdi’s Orfeo): “ Charon the keeper slept the sleep, not of the dead but of

beautiful musical persuasion” (Belfast Newsletter, 20/11/95)

 

(Tchaikovsky songs): “What a rare pleasure it was to hear an accomplished singer who is also an accomplished

linguist.” (Irish Times, 28/9/92)“Conor Biggs seems to be temperamentally one with the German Lied, and

Mahler’s “Songs of the Wayfarer” were sung with perfectly calculated expressiveness and tenderness of

feeling.” (Irish Times, 28/2/92)

 

“...the strongest element in this variable “Messiah” was provided by the bass, Conor Biggs...” (Irish Times, 1990)

 

“...probably the best singing by an Irish singer that I have heard in a long time.” (Irish Times, Sept.1990)

 

(Byrd’s Three-Part Mass): “...il risultato è incantevole, si ascolti per questo il “Gloria” della

 

“Messa a Tre Voci”, affidato ai bravissimmi Michèle Massima, Joris Bosman e Conor Biggs. Non solo hanno tutti

e tre una voce molto bella, non solo cantano con precisione assoluta...”( Daniela Goldoni, “Orfeo nelle Rete”)

 

(Matthew Passion): “Hierbij ontroerde vooral de warme stem van de Ierse bas-bariton Conor Biggs”

(E-zine met Hemelbed, Apr.2004)

 

“ If more of the world’s great artists had Conor Biggs’s artistic intelligence, music would be vastly enriched.”

(Irish Times)

 

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