Thursday, January 9, 2020
Cozy, comfortable, convivial, and contented are adjectives used to explain the Scandinavian concept of "hygge". We are not exactly sure how last night's concert at the Weill Recital Hall exemplifies those qualities, but we did hear some mighty fine piano playing from Irena Portenko and guest pianist Zachary Hoffman.
When we think of those adjectives, our mind may run to a 19th c. salon at the home of Franz Schubert with his friends gathered round to hear his latest songs, holding the scores in their hands, and singing his glorious melodies. Perhaps that what countertenor Jeffrey Palmer had in mind when he attempted to sing three of Schubert's best contributions to the lieder literature. Had Schubert been present, we do not believe he would have been content.
The concert stage is not the place to try out new material holding the score in one's hand. Nor is it the place to sing in a language which one has not mastered. Mr. Palmer's German is schlecht with frequent dropping of final consonants. His phrasing left much to be desired with breaths taken in awkward places, interrupting the vocal line.
We found ourself focusing on the superb playing of Dr. Portenko and realizing just how skillful Schubert was in supporting the vocal line, something which Mr. Palmer did not profit from. In "Ständchen" the piano's nightingale joins the lover in his serenade. In "Auf dem Wasser zu Singen", the ripples of the water are portrayed by parallel ripples in the piano. "An die Musik" pays tribute to the very artistry that Schubert accomplished in his sadly truncated life.
Lest you think we have something against the countertenor fach, rest assured we do not. As a matter of fact, we listen to Jakub Jozef Orlinski regularly, as well as Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, two young masters of the fach.
Mr. Palmer's singing was far better in two arias from Händel operas. "Ombra mai fu" from Serse was sung with pure Italian vowels and a pleasing legato. Mr. Palmer sings expressively and we could see the grand shady tree through his eyes and feel the cool shade. "Va tacito nascosto" from Giulio Cesare in Egitto sat particularly well in the best part of Mr. Palmer's register and the embellishments of the vocal line were exquisite.
We would have been happy to have heard Mr. Palmer sing nothing else for the entire concert but that was not the case. He tackled "Che faro senza Euridice" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and we'd call it a draw. We also heard some Debussy and Schumann, neither of which compared with the two traditional Irish songs with their haunting melodies. The singer has a pleasing vibrato in the lower end of his register but an unpleasant harshness at the top.
To round out the eclectic vocal part of the program was a song by Björk, one by Barber, and one of our favorite Sondheim songs--"Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, a song which we would be happy to label as an aria. We were puzzled by the inclusion of an a capella aria from Huang Ro's Paradise Interrupted, which we reviewed in 2016 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. We wanted to hold onto our memory of John Holiday's ethereal voice. Mr. Palmer's singing did not even approach the sound of Mandarin. Or was that an English translation? One could not tell.
If the vocal part of the program did not leave us with "contentment", we admit that it was convivial with the singer chatting amiably with the audience and, at one point, sitting at the edge of the stage. The audience loved it.
The piano part of the program, on the other hand, was always artistic and consequently pleasing. Dr. Portenko achieved a comfortable stage presence as she addressed the audience and enjoyed a fine collaboration with her fellow pianist Zachary Hoffman with whom she performed the third section of Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 1 in G Minor. The work comprises the substantial development of a simple theme, with Mr. Hoffman's piano providing some marching chords to accompany Dr. Portenko's lyricism.
We don't often hear two pianos-four hands and were delighted by the stereophonic effect. We were even more delighted when two of Dr. Portenko's students joined the other two pianists and we heard Piazzolla's "Libertango" played by two pianos-eight hands!
Mr. Hoffman had a fine solo in Cécile Chaminade's "Arabesque No. 1, Op. 61" with it's 19th c. lyricism that we so enjoy. The frequent recurrence of the theme gave the work a satisfying unity.
Dr. Portenko's solo was Chopin's "Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op. 23". The lengthy work is full of invention and takes the listener on a profound emotional journey. A searching melody gives way to an intensely passionate section; tenderness alternates with high drama. Just when one thinks the work is drawing to a close, new themes are brought in. By the time it ends one feels emotionally drained but content.
We would be remiss not to mention the New York Premiere of Benjamin Araujo's piano cycle Nine Portraits for Piano Solo, in which this young composer limned the personalities of members of his family and also public figures. The work was assured and original with plenty of variety among the nine episodes. And what is your 15-year-old doing???
The lengthy program even offered an encore, "This Woman's Work" by Kate Bush in which a woman dies in childbirth, or so we think, because the words were not clearly enunciated. We would have preferred a more joyful conclusion to the evening.
© meche kroop