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, February 5, 2020


Sally Matthews and Simon Lepper

Nothing pleases us more than discovering a singer we haven't heard before and we approached last night's recital at Weill Recital Hall with high anticipation, especially because the program of Sibelius, Grieg, Strauss, and Wagner comprised songs we know and love. Sadly, the evening left us feeling empty and disappointed, reluctant to sit down at the computer to write about it.

Appreciation of the human voice is a very individual thing and what sounds pleasing to one pair of ears may be unpleasant to another. Although the customary standing ovation with hoots and hollers at the conclusion was absent, there was generous applause and our post-recital chat with friends and colleagues revealed a modest degree of appreciation of certain aspects of the recital, but no one seemed thrilled.

We will get to the voice anon but let us start by saying that a seasoned performer who presents an entire recital buried in the score is cheating the audience of the intimate experience for which one attends a lieder recital in a small house.  Dear Reader, bear in mind that soprano Sally Matthews has apparently presented the very same program at Wigmore Hall in London! This was not a recital of new music with weird entrances and strange sounds. No, it was a recital of standard repertory that had been performed before.

Nor did the loathed music stand get set aside for the two encores. If we have one positive thing to say about the singer, it is that the lower tessitura of Britten's "The Salley Gardens" was more agreeable than the hard edges displayed during the rest of the program, an unpleasant sound that was at its worst at the top of the vocal register and was made even worse when the volume was increased.

Admittedly, our friend in the balcony found it not as painful to the ear drums as we did, as did the friend who sat next to us. The lower tessitura of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder was kinder to the ear. Pianissimo passages were less painful.

We have nothing to say about Ms. Matthews' Swedish. Her German was adequate and there were no omissions of the final "ch"; however at times, entire syllables were glossed over and we missed the crispness heard from German singers. Upward leaps in Wagner's "Schmerzen" were dynamically abrupt.

There was a sameness to the sound of every single song which added to the tedium. We don't believe that the singer lacked in connection to the material but she did lack in connection with the audience. She was either looking at the score or at some nonexistent family circle but never at the audience. We did not feel drawn into her world or the world of the song.

The best singing of the night came from the piano of Simon Lepper. When we feel alienated from a singer, we generally use the situation  as an opportunity to focus on the piano and Mr. Lepper did not disappoint. The variety we missed in the voice was amply revealed in the piano.

Fortunately, there were three instrumental selections from Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces: "Melodie" from  Op.38, No.3, "Melancholie" from Op.48, No.4, and "Arietta" from Op.12, No.1. All were lovely and evocative of different moods. We liked his soft hands as they caressed the keys.

We enjoyed the jaunty accompaniment to Grieg's "Lauf der Welt" which told the tale far better than the singer did.  In Strauss' Drei Lieder der Ophelia, Op.67, he captured the madness. Actually, the singer also captured the madness but was uncomfortably shrill.

Mr. Lepper's performance of Strauss' "Morgen!" was exquisite and we found ourselves wishing that he could continue without the voice. Similarly, for Wagner's "Im Treibhaus".

As impressed as we were with Mr. Lepper's piano, we wondered whether, in his role of coach, he had ever suggested to Ms. Matthews that she learn her program sufficiently to share it with the audience. It seems somewhat self-absorbed when a singer appears to be singing for herself and excludes the audience!

© meche kroop

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