We are never disappointed by an event at Juilliard but we are sometimes surprised. Last night's liederabend comprised Russian songs by Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Medtner, and Vertinsky. Was that too much of a language we don't understand? Not at all! As a matter of fact, we were sorry not to hear the set of Tchaikovsky songs which were eliminated due to illness.
It is an entirely different experience to listen to a language that one doesn't understand. The printed texts could not be followed due to dim lighting. So, we were left to just listen to the sound of the language and how each composer matched the rhythm of the text to his musical output. It was entirely up to the singer and collaborative pianist to get the meaning across.
Without exception, the participating artists rose to the occasion. Baritone Jake Alan Nelson was accompanied by Juliana Han, soprano Raquel González by Raymond Wong, baritone Jay Dref by Daniel Fung, bass-baritone Önay Köse also by Mr. Fung, and soprano Simone Easthope by Zsolt Balogh.
We are inadequate to the task of commenting on anyone's Russian diction but we can confidently say that, true to the Juilliard style, each singer communicated beautifully and made good contact with the audience.
Let us just mention a personal favorite, one of the highlights of the evening. Ms. González and Mr. Dref sang a charming duet entitled "Two Partings" in which a man asks a woman to differentiate between parting from a man she pitied and a man she loved. Perhaps it was because Ms. González did her own translation but it stands out in our memory. That set closed with a passionate ode to Spring in which the singer and pianist released a great deal of feeling.
Mr. Köse, heard last night for the first time, brought a big sturdy bass-baritone to three of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, all sad but well-performed. Ms. Easthope was most memorable in Vertinsky's "Old husband, stupid husband" in which a young woman taunts her elderly spouse with her love for another man.
The Russian character has been called "gloomy" but in this evening's selections we heard as much variety as we hear in German songs of the same epoch--songs about nature, about love and war, all of them filled with feeling.
© meche kroop