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Courageous Artistry

September 25, 2007

Judging by the small audience in attendance, you probably weren't in Old First Church on Friday evening as mezzo-soprano Miriam Abramowitsch and pianist George Barth presented a program of early 20th-century art songs. If you were, you witnessed one of the major intellectual events of the season. Both as programming and performance, it made a number of idealistic demands on the artists as well as their audience. The concert all went to prove that it's possible to present a program of largely adventurous music from the last century without necessarily producing an unpleasant experience for listeners.
And what's wrong with that?

The evening opened with five songs by Rachmaninov: Reflections, You Knew Him, Yesterday We Met, It Cannot Be!, and In the Silence of the Night. Next came really unusual stuff, eight songs by Erich Korngold: Gefasster Abschied, Op. 14, No. 4 (Resigned parting) (1920); Four Early Songs (1911) — consisting of Vom Berge (From the hilltop), Schneeglöcklein (Snowballs), Waldiensamkeit (Woodland solitude), and Ständchen (Serenade) — and then Three Songs, Op. 18 (1924). The latter were In meine innige (In my deep night), Tu ab den Schmerz (Away with pain), and Versuchung (Temptation).

Following intermission, Abramowitsch sang four individual songs of Francis Poulenc, plus his seven-songed cycle La Fraîcheur et le feu (The coolness and the fire). The individual songs contained the best-known music of the concert, Violin and Hôtel, plus Vers le sud (Toward the south) and Tu vois le feu du jour (You see the fire of evening).

Those were followed by a Hungarian group, five of Zoltan Kodály's and two from Béla Bartók's desk. Kodály's songs were Mónár Anna (Anna Monar), A rossz feleség (The bad wife), Meghalok, meghalok (I will die), Lúdaim, lúdaim (My geese), and Szolohegyen keresztül (Over the Grapevine Mountain). Bartók's two were Régi keserves (Old bitter song) and Székely "Friss" (Székely "Fresh"). For an encore, Abramowitsch sang a sonnet setting by Korngold.
Songs Worth Exploring
The largest discovery for me were the Korngold songs — songs, not lieder. (The piano merely forms a harmonic cushion, rather than doing picture painting for the words.) Those early songs display weaknesses; but after all, Korngold was only 13 or 14 years old when he composed them. His talent for melody was already evident, and not much later he was writing successful operas. Indeed, before age 20 he was being spoken of as a potential heir to Richard Strauss. The later songs on the program, however, were a far richer experience for this listener, in particular the Op. 18 set.

It's odd that Korngold is so shunned today. Largely that's due to his becoming a Hollywood film composer in 1934, and daring to win two Academy Awards (for Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse). Although he never really took note of 20th-century changes in style, his music reflects at least as much quality as does that of the equally conservative but popular Rachmaninov. Yet the only Korngold concert work being programmed these days is his Violin Concerto, a work partly drawn from his film scores. The songs sung at Old First Church proved to me that it's time to do a bit of digging into his output.

Poulenc's songs, also conservative, are pretty much standard recital fare around the world, and deservedly so. They are almost Schubertian in their matter-of-fact naturalness, and are free of drippy sentimentality, forced grandeur, or obvious stretching out. They're sophisticated enough to remain effective without overstaying their welcome. And, of course, Poulenc often chose unlikely texts, such as Hôtel, a short song about someone who's bored in a hotel room ("... like a cage"), while dying for a cigarette. Who else would try to set that, and keep it so brief? After all, a piece of music can never be too short. It can only be too long.

Both Kodály and Bartók leaned heavily on Hungarian folk poems and melody, Bartók even more so. But the inventive skills of their piano writing came closer to the lieder concept than anything else on the evening's program.

Bartók's "Old Bitter Song," for example, even employs piano harmonics, where the pianist presses down a chord with his right hand while the left hand plays notes below to set off a kind of eerie humming. Many of the Hungarian songs employ modal scales, some as lamenting love songs, others as dancing romps. These are great works, by any stretch of the imagination. The only thing holding them back is the fear most singers have of the Hungarian language. (Sing 'em in German if you have to!)

I admire much of Rachmaninov's music, most notably the big works. Yet he never quite got the hang of good vocal writing, with the exception of his Vespers, Op. 37, for a cappella choir. If you've never had to sit through one of his three operas, lucky for you. With the exception of his famous Vocalise, the songs strike me as no more than sentimentalized salon music dripping with coagulated sweet.
Still Golden
Abramowitsch has been a selfless singer for over 40 years, devoting monumental efforts to modern music of all sorts. I'll admit I felt a tad apprehensive about this recital, wondering if she still had any voice left, but not to worry. She was superb — and, indeed, maturity has enriched her timbre into velvet warmth and broadened her concept of fine phrasing. Then, too, she managed to sing everything in its original language, whether Russian, German, French, or Hungarian. Such as I've heard the songs in those languages, she did a bang-up job with all of them.

A word of praise is also due to pianist Barth, whose security and feeling for sonic proportion were exemplary. For one overtly obvious thing, he used only the small peg to hold up the piano top, not the wide-open form that hampers so many vocal and chamber programs. Of course, since he directs Stanford University's keyboard program, you'd hardly expect less from him.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.