We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Henry Meyer-Oertel, Aeneas Humm, Magda Gartner, Babette Hierholzer

It was a special evening.  It was a VERY special evening. It was a most rewarding lieder recital given by the German Forum at the lovely home of German Consul General Brita Wagener, 42 stories above the congested streets of midtown Manhattan. 

There are two very special qualities to appreciate about the German Forum. One is the valuable performance opportunities they provide for German speaking young artists; the other is the valuable entertainment and stimulation they provide for their members and guests. Membership comes at a modest cost and the socializing before and after the recital is always gemütlich, whether one is German or not.

Last night's recital brought back two gifted artists whom we reviewed last February (review archived); we were thrilled for the chance to hear them again. The program comprised both lieder and opera duets.

Mezzo-soprano Magda Gartner opened the program with Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, a highly dramatic song cycle he composed in 1840, just ten years after Adelbert von Chamisso wrote the poetry. We don't care that the poetry has been criticized for taking the position that a woman's life revolves around a man. This was written in the 19th c. and such was often the case. Listening to the text gives us insight into "a woman's love and life".  Indeed!

But listening to the music provides emotional content which amplifies our experience. Schumann's writing conveys many aspects of love, as it grows from childlike adoration to mature acceptance of the responsibilities of love, the satisfaction of motherhood, and eventually to the pain of loss.

It is up to the singer and collaborative pianist to show what the poet tells. Each time we hear this cycle we hear something new, as one tends to do with great music. Last night, Babette Hierholzer, Artistic Director of the German Forum,  accompanied mezzo-soprano Magda Gartner in a fine performance of the cycle.

Ms. Gartner's voice has a lovely caramel-toned timbre that she employs well with apt phrasing and lots of feeling. The frivolity of an infatuated young girl gave way to the serious consideration of the responsibilities of marriage. The ambivalent joys of the wedding day yielded to the unambivalent joys of motherhood. A new roundness of tone crept into Ms. Gartner's voice.  The hollow barrenness of widowhood in the final song was relieved by the postlude in the piano which reflected back to the beginning joy.

Ms. Gartner has a firm hand on all these colors; we sense that she is on the right track with her interpretation and that she will continue to develop even more subtleties of coloration.

We were as excited to hear an undiscovered lied as Ms. Gartner had been to find the score--in a flohmarkt, of all places!  Composer Robert Fischhof (1856-1918) came from a Viennese family with musical talent on both sides. He studied with Bruckner and Liszt, but his voice is his own. 

Ms. Gartner committed herself completely to his "Stark wie der Tod" which challenged the very bottom of her register but did not defeat it. The sentiments of poet Theodor Salzburg-Falkenstein came across beautifully and the vocal line swelled to a glorious climax.  We wanted more from this all-but-forgotten composer!

Taking over for the second half of the program was baritone Aeneas Humm, a youth of twenty years with a mature instrument that belies his tender years. Already famous in the German speaking world, his talent has been recognized and celebrated abroad. Here in New York City, this is only our second time hearing him but it surely won't be the last.

He chose to perform selections from Schumann's Dichterliebe, a cycle of songs about a poet's love, with text by Heinrich Heine. This cycle also requires many changes of vocal color as the poet moves from hopefulness to ecstasy and adoration of the beloved. Mr. Humm colored his voice darkly for the lower register of "Im Rhein, im schönen Strome" and conveyed all the bitterness in the ironic "Ich grolle nicht". In "Aus alten Märchen" he captured the dreamlike essence of a fantasy and changed abruptly when the poet confronts his reality.

It was such a pleasure to hear German sung by native born Germans without having to worry about diction!  But Mr. Humm also gave us a lovely song in fine French--"Le Fugitif" by contemporary Berlin composer Alexander Liebermann, whose work we so admired in last February's recital. The setting of text by Paul de Roux was rapturously rendered by composer, pianist and singer.

Next on the generous program were three duets by Mendelssohn, written originally for two sopranos. Settings of texts by Heinrich Heine, they allowed the two singers to adjust their voices to one another and blend in 19th c. harmony. Our favorite was the gentle "Abendlied", a contrast with the final song "Wasserfahrt", a propulsive song in which a sailor deals with the loss of love.

We were fortunate to have two encores--duets by Mozart--quite fitting since Mostly Mozart has just begun at Lincoln Center (reviewed yesterday). In "Il core vi dono" from Cosi fan tutte, Dorabella and Guglielmo pledge their love.  In "La ci darem la mano", from Don Giovanni, the eponymous hero succeeds in luring Zerlina to his castello.

Mr. Humm is returning to Europe and we hope we won't have to wait to long for his return.  Ms. Gartner however will be performing in the upcoming Dell'Arte season and we are looking forward to hearing her next month.  And so should you!

© meche kroop

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