Music@Menlo: Love Songs Review by Gary Lemco

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Music@Menlo: Love Songs Review by Gary Lemco

Post by Lance » Wed Aug 24, 2011 6:36 pm

Love Songs at Music@Menlo
By Gary Lemco

With their one encore, the Brahms "Wenn ich ein hübscher, kleiner Vogel wär" from his Op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes, an evening of Love Songs concluded on Saturday, August 2 as part of the ongoing “Through Brahms” series at Music@Menlo, performed at the Menlo-Atherton School in Palo Alto. “If anything,” quipped one attendee, “the tenor Paul Appleby gave an even more delightful performance the second time!”

Celebrating the art of the Romantic lied--the intimacy of words and music--provided the raison d’etre for the evening, especially since much of the Brahms ethos devoted itself to lieder in the manner of his idol, Franz Schubert. Three Schubert songs did in fact open the program: “Liebesbotschaft” from the Swan-Song Cycle, D. 957; and two settings from Johann Meyerhofer, “Nachtstueck” and “Aufloesung.” Tenor Paul Appleby and pianist Wu Han collaborated in these settings, each of which testifies to Schubert’s major themes of Nature, Love, and Loss. Superscript English translations appeared on a frieze above the performers. Appleby himself proves a fine Schubert advocate, his diction clear, his intonation focused, and his warm tone easily reminiscent of the better German school of art-song delivery.

The Zwei Gesaenge, Op. 91 for mezzo-soprano, obbligato viola, and piano (1864; rev. 1884) by Brahms brought back ancient memories of having heard these autumnal songs rendered by Marian Anderson and Kathleen Ferrier. Sasha Cooke, mezzo joined pianist Gilbert Kalish and violist Paul Neubauer in these tender pieces. Unlike Ms. Han, Kalish sports a light hand in the keyboard part that has a suppleness and liquidity that would well translate to the music of Faure. “Stilled Desire” by the poet Rueckert expresses the typical Brahms sentiment of self-conscious longing that cannot quite be obliterated by time. The “Sacred Lullaby” has the more famous melody, suggestive of the Madonna’s singing and consoling the Infant Jesus.

Soprano Katherine Whyte replaced the scheduled Erin Morley in the group performing Schumann’s OP. 138 Spanish Love-Songs (1849) accompanied in four hands by Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish. Here, too, Ms. Han seemed to outweigh Kalish in dynamics and density, not always to advantage. But the vocal ensemble--Whyte, soprano; Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Appleby, tenor; and Kelly Markgraf, baritone--interpolated several songs from the Myrthen cycle, Op. 25 (1840) and “Lehn’ deine Wang’ an meine Wang” originally meant for the Dichterliebe cycle. Two instrumental episodes appear, at the opening of the ten-song cycle and an intermezzo as n umber six. Various soli alternated through the settings, combining as a quartet only in the concluding song. But the sense of Love’s coloring the world with images--often apocalyptic--of light and dark found fluent melody in these deft compositions, which provided the model for the Brahms sets of Love-Song Waltzes.

Alban Berg’s 1905-1908 Sieben fruehe Lieder ensued with Katherine Whyte and Gilbert Kalish, perhaps the real highlight of the evening. Modally conceived yet remaining within post-Romantic harmonic limits, these songs conveyed an eerie, eldritch beauty, as do the paintings of Gustav Moreau. The use of whole tones, diminished fourths, and obsessive motives marked the settings, one of which, from Rilke, proved spellbinding. The musical syntax, its Romantic sensuousness and modernist vision, quite opened new vistas for expressive possibilities. Kalish’s piano accompaniments, at once liquid and exploratory, made us eager to delve further into this harmonic pool of inspiration.

Finally, the Master himself, Brahms in his 1870 settings of eighteen poems for vocal quartet and four-hand piano. Han and Kalish reversed their former position in the Schumann, Han’s playing the bass part, which she overloaded dynamically. Here, in the vocal quartet, the ivy and the vine intermingled in variegated forms, ardent, passionate, demure, sarcastic. One of the songs indulged the composer’s misanthropy, claiming, “I hate people” for their wagging tongues. So, too, “Wake up, locksmith,” which demands that gossips be harnessed fro their prying ways. “On the banks of the Danube” made some amorous points, in which the persona’s passion could tear down ten iron bars. That Love is a pit of despair” conceit in No. 16 certainly could have spoken of the composer’s longing for Clara Schumann. Still, the spirit of amorous exultation reigned, and the performers communicated their own rapture to a delighted audience. ♪

Gary R. Lemco is a regular reviewer for
Classical Music Guide. He lives in California

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