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Exploring the Full Range of Richard Strauss’s Songs

July 2, 2019

Lieder Alive!

The artistic strategy for Sunday afternoon’s Lieder Alive! recital at the Noe Valley Ministry was set in motion at the outset. Soprano Heidi Moss Erickson and pianist John Parr’s program devoted to Richard Strauss began with an 1870 version of a song, “Einkehr,” set down in the composer’s short-pants phase: He was all of 6 years old when he wrote it. A second “Einkehr,” dating from 1900, immediately followed.

The differences were predictably striking. The early setting of Johann Uhland’s poem, which recounts a larky afternoon at a country inn, came across as a sweetly straightforward folk song. Thirty years later, Strauss’s mature gifts for animating and illuminating a text were on full display. The melody and accompaniment both were more florid, chromatic, actively dramatized. A downward swooping melodic phrase deftly captured the image of a golden apple hanging from a long branch. Singer and pianist warmed to the richer material and made it glow.

“A Richard Strauss Chronology,” the program promised. And so, in crisply abbreviated form, it was. In 80 minutes, including an intermission, Erickson and Parr progressed from juvenilia to the luminous Four Last Songs. Stops along the way included songs written in Strauss’s twenties (among them a brooding evocation of night and a playfully tumescent love song) and the Brentano Lieder from his forties.

Then came a long withdrawal from lieder before the great, death-haunted effusion of those famous final songs of 1948. From earliest to latest composition dates, the bill spanned 78 years. In an unprogrammed addition, Erickson sang a short, 1925 anthemic setting of a Goethe poem, which apparently makes a plea for international understanding. The message, as the singer noted, was well worth hearing in our own fractious times.

Erickson, whose credits include roles with various opera companies in the Bay Area and beyond, brought a big, high-impact sound to the proceedings. That, to a fault, was her leading asset. When it worked, in the boy’s free-striding, “cling-clang” anticipation of his lover in “Beating Hearts,” Erickson brought things to a lively boil. She gave “To the Night” a stark, raw potency, appropriate to the Wagnerian cast of Charles Brentano’s lyrics. When “Bjelbog’s spear/Sinks into the heart of the drunken Earth,” a Brunnhilde-like heft is rightly summoned.

But too often there was more sound and fury and not enough poetic nuance in the soprano’s approach. High notes turned harsh and metallic. The dynamics got dialed up and stayed there. Suppleness and shaping, sensitivity to the line, the word, the moment, were intermittent.

Certain passages stood out well. Erickson trod gently on the elves’ soft footsteps in “Serenade.” The oscillating, faintly Spanish continuo line of the accompaniment to “Dreaming Through the Twilight” induced a more yielding, responsive musicianship. And the romantic paradox of the final lines in “Nighttime Walk” (text by Otto Julius Bierbaum) — a kiss that makes the speaker’s soul weep — felt full-hearted.

Anyone who sings the Four Last Songs must compete with interpretations listeners already have in their heads and hearts. This one was not likely to dislodge many favorite recollections. Erickson kept swerving in and out of focus. No sooner had she cradled the bird song in “Spring” to life than her voice veered dangerously toward the shrill. Her lush runs in “September” came at the expense of a more sensitive reading overall. The best came last, when Erickson evoked the darkening sky of “In the Evening Glow” with a lustrous, poetically focused line. Her encore, the luminous “Morgen,” was a sotto voce farewell.

Parr, whose generally keen and alert keyboard work sometimes turned blurry, acknowledged the limitation of performing the Four Last Songs without their ravishing orchestral accompaniment. Whatever adjustments he made to the piano reduction set off some fascinating echoes, as transcriptions often do.

Performed in the serene, high vaulted sanctuary of the Ministry, the Lieder Alive! recitals are appealing, even when the musical values are uneven. Concertgoers are offered a flute of sparkling wine when they arrive. The audience is attentive, engaged, and loudly appreciative.

This program offered one additional point of interest. The English translations printed in the program were often slightly different from those projected on a screen. It was, if unintentionally. a living lesson in the elusive, subjective nature of building musical and verbal bridges between one language and another.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.