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, April 5, 2023



Rafael Aguirre and Fatma Said

A welcome departure from the typical voice/piano recital of German/French art songs brought a sell-out crowd to Weill Recital Hall last night. What could better suit a scintillating soprano in partnership with a master of the guitar than a program of songs originating in Spain-- with a sprinkling of Arabic and Sephardic songs to celebrate the mosaic nature of Spanish history.

Just as one could not visit Granada without appreciating the wonders of The Alhambra, one cannot listen to Spanish music without hearing the strains of Romani, Sephardic, and Arabic melodies and rhythms. A post-concert reading of Harry Haskells's scholarly program notes was most enlightening, tying together Spanish history and culture as they affected Spanish music.

But let us focus on what our ears told us! Celebrated and much recorded Egyptian soprano Fatma Said was the perfect choice for this music and her warm inviting manner drew us into her world. The instrument is crystalline and pure of tone and more than usually expressive. If there were one minor failing we noticed that the beginnings of some songs were a bit low in volume but by the second phrase had achieved suitable dynamics. 

There were times when we wished for more specificity in the generous gestures which lost impact due to a lack of variety. For unknown reasons, Ms. Said kept her head tilted toward her wonderful guitar partner and frequently tilted her body in his direction. We felt like we had a critical parent voice in our head saying "Stand up straight!". This was a minor distraction and did not spoil the impact of her affection for the material and her generosity in sharing it.

The initial set was the one most familiar to us--Manuel de Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas, a cycle which we have mainly heard with piano accompaniment. Hearing it with guitar was a refreshing novelty. The varying moods came across well, although we missed the irony we like to hear in "El paño moruna" and "Seguidilla murciana", both of which are symbolic references to women of low morality. However "Asturiana" captured quiet sorrow in four brief lines. We enjoyed the earnest feelings of "Jota" and the rage of "Polo". The guitar introduction to "Nana", performed by Rafael Aguirre, set the stage for this moving lullaby.

We know the music of Joaquin Rodrigo primarily through his orchestral works-- Concierto de Aranjuez and Fantasia para un gentilhombre. This was our first exposure to one of his songs "Adela" from Tres canciones españolas which was marked by simplicity and opened with some lovely arpeggi in the guitar.

The most modern sounding set on the program was composed by Lorenzo Palomo and comprised a "Madrigal and Five Sephardic Songs" which bore the influence of the pre-expulsion Jewish presence in Spain. As we have noted before, Spanish composers, even those that studied in Europe, never succumbed to the anti-melodic influence of the 20th c. that so destroyed the art song tradition.

We enjoyed José Serrano's jaunty "La canción del olvido: Marinela" and Federico Garcia Lorca's similarly jaunty "Los cuatro muleros". In complete contrast was the emphatic "Sevillanas del siglo XVIII".

Perhaps our favorite canción was the romantic "Del cabello mas sutil" from Fernando Obradors' Canciones clasicas españolas. The song is short and sweet and we wished the composer had written another verse or two!

The Egyptian songs on the program represented the Arabic contribution to the Iberian musical landscape. We didn't find the harsh Arabic language to be any more singable than we find English to be; however, the warmth and sincerity endowed by Ms. Said made them compelling. Najib Hankash's "Give me a flute and sing" offered the opportunity to appreciate the artist's fine fioritura. Sherif Mohie El Din's "Will the River Flow Forever" was marked by a lovely spinning out of sound that seemed to last forever.

Mr. Aguirre had a chance to shine in his solo Gran Jota by Francisco Tárrega. This is a most virtuosic work, filled with pyrotechnics--dazzling finger work and astonishing percussive effects. We wished we had been sitting closer since we were trying to figure out how he managed to play melody, harmony, and percussion all at once.

We enjoyed the evening a great deal and we left wanting to hear Mr. Aguirre perform in Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez someday. In the same fashion, we would love to experience Ms. Said on the opera stage. Her credits are mainly in the area of art song but we had some mental fun casting her in a number of operas featuring charming coquettish heroines! 

© meche kroop

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