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Miah Persson’s Beautiful Voice Flourishes in Recital

March 21, 2017

Cal Performances

Laryngitis forced baritone Florian Boesch to bow out of his March 19 joint Cal Performances Hertz Hall recital with soprano Miah Persson and pianist Malcolm Martineau, but it was still a standout afternoon. Without a doubt the most bright-toned recital in a seven-day period that will include four recitals by top-rank singers (Mark Padmore, Persson, Nicholas Phan, and Sarah Connolly), the afternoon showcased a glowing-voiced Persson singing German lieder by Edward Grieg and the Schumanns Robert and Clara.

As she nears 38, Persson seems at a transition point where her voice’s initial glow and freshness remain, but the newfound weight and depth of maturity have emerged. She remains the image of fair-skinned, blond-haired loveliness, and carries herself like the teenage Sophie in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. But she can now summon forth some of the gravitas of a mature woman. It is a wonderful time to hear her in recital.

Indeed, she did sound wonderful. With Martineau at his most engaging, Persson was ideal in such dew-kissed Schumann songs as “Mondnacht” (Moonlit night), “Schneeglöckchen” (Snowdrop), and “Er ist’s” (Spring is here). With Elisabeth Schumann, Irmgard Seefried, and Elly Ameling no longer around to entrance us, Persson, Christiane Karg, and Carolyn Sampson (who presents a not-to-be-missed San Francisco Performances recital on May 17) are probably the three sopranos, currently in mid-career, who are most suited to convey the uncomplicated, pristine loveliness of these songs.  

For those who do not speak German, however, appreciating all that Persson had to offer was no easy task. Due to Boesch’s 11th-hour cancellation, Persson’s half of the program was supplemented by a host of last-minute additions for which Cal Performances was unable to provide translations. Martineau attempted to fill in gaps in understanding by charmingly prefacing each grouping of nontranslated songs with summaries and commentary, but it was not enough. Even when Persson sang songs that were included in the original program, multiple changes in the program order forced audience members to constantly flip forward or back in their program books to find translations.

The program was initially designed to trace Robert’s Schumann’s output from two early songs, written when he was in his teens, through two final songs from Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, Op. 135. With Boesch’s contributions eliminated, Persson added the entire eight-song Frauenliebe und leben, Op. 42, as well as other songs. Martineau’s introduction to the Frauenliebe, in which he made a quasi-feminist case for a cycle often denigrated for its old-fashioned portrayal of a woman’s love and life, helped reframe the music for lieder aficionados who will also hear Connolly sing it this week.

Here as elsewhere, Persson was best at expressing youthful hope, anticipation, excitement, and joy. Martineau was brilliant, making the postlude to “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” (Help me, O sisters) sound like a true wedding processional, and that of the preceding “Du Ring an meinem Finger” (The Ring on my Finger) truly profound. But as sincere as Persson was, it was hard to erase memories of artists whose voices summoned forth greater depth of feeling, including contralto Kathleen Ferrier and mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (whom I heard perform the cycle in Zellerbach).

Persson’s ability to shift with ease from a mere thread of sound to full-voiced emission, all while sounding at the peak of vocal health, was masterful. In fact, she sounded so unfailingly lovely that it seems almost churlish to complain.

Nonetheless, time and time again the feeling arose that there was more to be found in some of the songs. Persson’s unfailingly lovely surface sheen was cause for celebration. But what of the deeper emotions that lay beneath it, and which could have been shared had more attention been paid to word painting?

There were traces of profundity, to be sure, some of which were supplied by Martineau. Each time he produced one of his special suspensions of time — his one solo, “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen, included a magical slowdown in the final verse where tension continued through silence — we experienced pianistic magic to match Persson’s pristine vocalism. But besides gracing us with her perfectly placed voice, excellent enunciation, and perfect emission, Persson seemed content to give us beauty for beauty’s sake. Which, in a world where power, control and profit trump all else, is not a bad thing.

There was one encore, Grieg’s beloved “Jeg elsker dig” (I love you). Sung with absolute mastery of dynamics, it was nigh perfect until a climactic high note, initially attacked softly, was opened into a weightier sound. It was at that point that the conundrum currently facing Persson — shall her interpretations favor the youth with which she began her career, or the maturity now within her reach? — was unmistakable. If she had continued to hold the note softly, the encore would have been perfect. As it was, it reflected an artist in transition.

Which is, after all, a fine thing. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau may have excelled in lieder from the get-go, but Lotte Lehmann, one of the supreme geniuses of lieder interpretation, first began to achieve greatness in lieder in her 40s. With a voice as perfectly produced as Persson’s, there is time. 

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.