|Janai Brugger, John Brancy, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett|
Our dear Steven Blier seems never to run out of original ideas for recitals for New York Festival of Song, of which he is the Artistic Director. Last night's recital was entitled "Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud's Vienna" and Mr. Blier introduced the program from the piano by describing Gustav Mahler's four-hour session walking with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He waggishly pointed out that it seemed to have helped and left Mahler transformed for the better.
We in the audience had but two hours to be transformed for the better. Reading the program notes describing the circumstances in Victorian Vienna up to the 1930's gave an excellent background for appreciation of the music. A society pretending to be respectable and controlled was seething with rebellion underneath, just as a person with a conservative exterior may be hiding some pretty wild secrets.
New ground was being broken in all fields and so it was with music. We no longer hear the strophic melodies and reassuring harmonies of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Instead we are hearing experiments in rhythm, strange harmonies, and a searching quality in the melodies.
Bringing this challenging music to vivid life were two superb artists--one well known to us for several years since Juilliard days--baritone John Brancy-- and the other a dazzling soprano new to NYFOS--Janai Brugger. It's thrilling to witness the meteoric rise of someone we have long appreciated and it's thrilling to hear someone as a recitalist whom we have previously heard only on the opera stage (as Liu in Puccini's Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera).
The evening opened and closed with Mahler. The first set of songs comprised Herr Mahler's "Erinnerung" and his wife Alma Mahler's "Laue Sommernacht". The first made use of Mr. Brancy's baritone and Ms. Brugger's soprano in alternating stanzas exploring the relationship between song and love. The final couplet was sung as a duet and we found the entire song quite lovely.
But Frau Mahler's "Laue Sommernacht" was even lovelier with it's intense yet intimate feel. She was taught by Alexander Zemlinsky and Herr Mahler was disapproving of her composing--perhaps because of societal restrictions or perhaps out of envy. Who knows?
After many wonderful songs by Hugo Wolf, Erich Korngold, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss, we were treated to an encore of a 20th c. Tom Lehrer song "Alma" which satirizes Frau Mahler's succession of famous husbands. We will spare you the lengthy list of lovers. What a gal!
The songs were nearly all new to us with the exception of two cabaret type songs which we had heard at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Hugo Wolf's "Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens" was sung by Ms. Brugger who communicated all the naughty suggestiveness of the lyrics. She did the same for Schoenberg's "Der genügsamer Liebhaber", a song one would expect to have been sung by a man.
But Mr. Blier is fond of gender-free casting and put Zemlinsky's "Das bucklichte Männlein" into the mouth of Mr. Brancy who picked up the humor ball and ran with it all the way to the goal post. (Forgive us our sports metaphor.) Mr. Brancy is usually a contained stage presence, using vocal colors to convey the drama so this was novel and fun seeing him let loose. Here, although the lyrics are funny, the piano line conveys substantial anxiety.
Ms. Brugger's finest moments were in "Frühlingsfeier" when she cried out for Adonis and in "Drei Ophelia-Lieder" both by Strauss. Her dramatic instincts are as fine as her beautiful instrument.
We also enjoyed Mr. Brancy's amusing delivery of Korngold's unpublished early song "Die Geniale". Short but sweet.
The two fine singers joined voices for the final work on the program "Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arcadien". Apparently we were in a particular mood for humor last night. We had trouble imagining the super-serious Schoenberg setting the light-hearted words of the long-dead Emanuel Schikaneder. But he did and we enjoyed it.
We measure the success of this type of recital by how many hours of reading they inspire. We have been reading about the denizens of turn-of-the-20th c. Vienna for hours. What a fascinating junction of time and place--zeit und stelle.
ⓒ meche kroop