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.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Julius Drake and Ruby Hughes

Listening to the magic of last night's recital at Weill Recital Hall, we couldn't keep ourselves from thinking about Dorothy's magic shoes in The Wizard of Oz. In any case, there was a lot of magic onstage in a superlative recital given by two artists who compliment each other to an unusual degree. Mr. Drake has the soft hands that we favor, always supporting Ms. Hughes and never drowning her out, unlike some accompanists we have heard recently.

Ms. Hughes has a gracious stage presence and a lovely instrument with which to work. What impressed us immediately was her expressiveness and the attention paid to coloring each word. She opened the program with a trio of songs by Henry Purcell. They spoke to us from the 17th c. in a clearer voice than the Britten songs from the 20th c. that we heard later in the program.

"Music for a while" always beguiles us.  "O lead me to some peaceful gloom" was new to us but "Thrice happy lovers" was familiar from the masque The Faerie Queen which we so enjoyed this past summer (review archived) produced by the newborn Gramercy Opera. The British artist made every word clear and made every word count, without ignoring the overall phrasing.

Robert Schumann's Liederkreis, Op.39 was performed in its entirety and we were transported to the world of nature as seen through the eyes of the 19th c. poet Joseph von Eichendorff. When Schumann called him the perfect poet for lieder he was right on point. The text rhymes and scans beautifully and the images are evocative. (Actually, the same could be said for the texts employed by Purcell.)

With the typical style of 18th c. German Romanticism, Eichendorff used natural elements to refer to feeling tone. Forests can be lonely or threatening. Birds can symbolize freedom of expression and one's very soul. The sky can kiss the earth as a lover would.

The two artists excelled here. Ms. Hughes was riveting in "Waldesgesprach", illuminating the voices of the "man on the make" and that of the witch who retaliates with anger and severe punishment. Mr. Drake was remarkable in creating an air of quietude in the prelude to "Mondnacht" and the rustling of the treetops in "Schone Fremde".

In "Auf einer Burg", the piece closes on an unsettled and unresolved note. We are left puzzled about the weeping bride. Although we have heard this cycle countless times, we have never heard artists create this intense effect. We would have wished to linger awhile as the question hung in the air.

Our only quibble was with Ms. Hughes German. We understood it but were mildly disconcerted by some inconsistencies in the final "ch" and "g", as well as a tendency to ignore the umlaut in certain words. (We ourselves are hampered by not having diacritical marks on our keyboard but if a kind reader comes to our aid we will be grateful. Our writing program used to have a "hack" for this but no longer.)

We are happy to report that Ms. Hughes' French was merveilleux. Lately we have been hearing a great deal of Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and never tire of it. Each singer has done well in conveying the adolescent innocence of "La flute de Pan", the eroticism of "La chevelure" and the pain of facing reality in "Le tombeau des naiades" when the lover has lost his desire. Ms. Hughes put her own spin on it--the feeling of loneliness when love dies--and we loved it. Debussy's complex piano score was no challenge for Mr. Drake.

We couldn't say we loved Ravel's Deux melodies hebraiques but we loved the way the singer sang them with gorgeous melismas. Perhaps the failure to connect with this work had much to do with Ms. Hughes being "on the book".

A Charm of Lullabies by Benjamin Britten also failed to charm us. This has more to do with our taste than the success of the composition or its performance.  "The Highland Balou" and "The Nurse's Song" have text that is doggerel, but we enjoyed them the most. Some of the others seemed as if they did not ask to be set. 

We managed to feel no affection for the world premiere of Huw Watkins' cycle Echo. We realize that it is a very big deal for a singer to have a work composed just for him/her but it is rare that we enjoy such events. The presence of the detested music stand interfered with any connection we might have felt. Just sayin'.

As encore we heard the Scottish folk song "O Waly Waly", otherwise known as "Water is Wide". It was sung with simplicity and restored our good feeling about this exceptional recital. We understand Ms. Hughes is devoted to female composers and hope she will consider adding some Clara Schumann to her next recital.

(c) meche kroop

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