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RECITAL REVIEW

Nuanced Beauties

February 19, 2006

Christine Brandes

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By Anna Carol Dudley

Christine Brandes changed her mind on the way to her Noe Valley Chamber Music concert Sunday. What had originally been billed as a complicated affair involving several players became, instead, a recital of French and German songs beautifully programmed and performed by Brandes and pianist Laura Dahl.

The original centerpiece of the concert remained intact: a performance of five songs from Hindemith's Das Marienleben (The life of Mary), a setting of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke. The songs follow Mary from her birth, through the Annunciation, to the birth and later the death of Christ, and finally to Mary's death. Brandes spoke briefly about Rilke's gift for humanizing Mary and even the angels, and expressed her admiration for Hindemith's original settings, subsequently spoiled by his fussing with them. She sang the originals.

The "Annunciation" was particularly effective, as Mary and the angel gazed at each other before the angel began his announcement. Brandes' singing was elegant, and her occasional use of gesture is telling. In the "Pieta" upon Christ's death, Mary is miserable and numb; the performance, a bit overwrought, would benefit from more use of quiet, vibrato-free, desolate sound. Mary's death, on the other hand, appropriately sounded a note of triumph and transfiguration.

A lovely palette

Reynaldo Hahn, like his contemporary Claude Debussy, was attracted to 15th century French poetry. The recital opened with five of his settings in this genre, three of them rondels with their graceful repetition of lines. Brandes sang to Chloris, the perennial shepherdess, and to the nightingale among the lilacs, and to a beautiful and noble lady, shading her voice to suit each. Her voice has become increasingly resonant and colorful. When she lost her heart to a lady in a pavilion, and when she rhapsodized about laughing Spring, the sound was bright. When she sang "Je me souviens," remembering the passionate beginnings of love and longing for its return, her sound was nuanced, with rich low tones.

Debussy's Ariettes oubliées, to poems by Paul Verlaine, rounded out the first half of the recital. The languorous ecstasy of the first song was beautifully shaped, with just the right variations of tempo and dynamics. "Il pleure dans mon coeur" (The weeping in my heart is like the rain outside), that gorgeous description of ennui, sometimes got a little too heated; Debussy's dynamic markings range from piano to pianissimo. Even the little recitative outburst toward the end is marked pianissimo, and it needs to be draggy rather than emphatic. Brandes sharped a little there, but that may have been because she was bothered by a high buzzing sound in the room. She stopped and waited for some experimenting with lights to eliminate the sound, but it was hard to locate.

She continued with the lamenting "L'ombre des arbres" (Tree-shadows), then launched into the merry-go-round song, "Chevaux de bois" (wooden horses), enlivened by effective gestures and nicely paced as the day winds down and the stars come out. "Green" followed — one of Debussy's most erotic songs — and Brandes gave it a lovely performance, using rubato and tempo changes tellingly. It could have used even more inégalité in the words. And the set ended with the troubling "Spleen": all nature is too vivid; I'm tired of everything — except for you. Alas!

Words without music

This concert was one of several described in the season brochure as intended to be interactive, and Brandes and her excellent accompanist took turns speaking informally to the audience. When applause started after the first song, Brandes, with great good humor, suggested that the concert would get awfully long unless people held their applause until the end of each set. She also encouraged people to follow the printed texts closely if they felt like it; she wouldn't mind if their eyes were given to excellent poetry as she sang. Introducing the Debussy, Dahl filled us in on the disastrous outcome of Verlaine's affair with Rimbaud, and Brandes made a connection between "Spleen" and Brokeback Mountain. But Verlaine's poetry speaks expressively on many levels without particularities of context. The talk, if anything, ill prepared both performers and audience for the splendid first song of the Debussy set.

Five songs by Richard Strauss followed the Hindemith after intermission. Most were written for piano and later orchestrated by Strauss, the one exception being Meinem Kind, a lullaby for his first child, which was originally sung with orchestra, later transcribed for piano. The lullaby was especially meaningful for this concert, since Laura Dahl was visibly pregnant with her first child.

Strauss does make a soprano sound good, and Brandes took full advantage of the coloratura bits. There was a wonderful lick on "Elysium" in Das Rosenband (the Elysium having been produced as a result of some well-placed ribbons). Ich wollt ein Sträusslein binden (I would have brought you flowers) started with tears, then introduced a flower which could be picked to take to the beloved. The flower pleaded for its life, and was left unpicked, and anyway the sweetheart didn't show up. More tears. I thought of Goethe's and Mozart's violet, so enamored of a pretty shepherdess that it died happy when she stepped on it. The concert ended with the lovely Morgen (Tomorrow) with its long orchestral introduction, followed by the ringing "Habe Dank" (Thanks) of Zueignung (Dedication).

And then, by golly, what do you suppose Christine Brandes sang for an encore? Of course, the Mozart Veilchen!

(Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, member of the faculties of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, and lecturer emerita and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.)

©2006 Anna Carol Dudley, all rights reserved