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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Two Singers Reveal the Core of Art Song, on Stages Big and Small

At first it seemed that the two recitals in New York, dedicated to the two recitals, were dedicated to completely different areas of art song.

On Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, Jonas Kaufmann, one of the world’s leading tenors, presented a program of songs in German. Then on Sunday afternoon at the Park Avenue Armory, rising baritone Will Liverman, who is currently starring Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera, gave a varied recital that included compositions from four black composers he supports. …

The Armory Concert Hall – roughly a 100-seat Council of Officers Hall – is close to the salons and lounges where Schubert and other composers of his time essentially created the Leader’s Concert. Carnegie Hall, which sold out nearly all of its 2,800 seats for Kaufmann’s participation, is far more than anything the founders of Lieder could have imagined.

However, in essence, bard song is a genre in which music is sensitively and convincingly placed at the service of poetic texts. And while the stages Kaufmann and Liverman performed on could not have been more different, both artists have shown themselves to be singers who put words first.

Kaufmann, who has been depressingly elusive in New York in recent years, came along with his longtime recital partner, the excellent pianist Helmut Deutsch. They started with nine works that can be heard in their recent recording of Liszt’s song, some 90 songs of which go unnoticed. In “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder,” the passionate setting of Heine’s poem, Kaufman was almost in Wagnerian style, like a desperate Tristan, singing with polished top notes but tenderly forming painful phrases.

From time to time, in Liszt’s songs and elsewhere, there were irregularities in his voice. (A week earlier, he canceled several shows in Munich due to a tracheal infection.) But mostly he rallied and as the program continued, he sounded best with his loud voice. These works by Liszt are amazing, full of musical and poetic flights, sometimes epic, sometimes thoughtful. The piano parts, unsurprisingly for this composer, are often complex, with bold chromatic harmonies and wonderful colors. What impressed me most, however, was when Kaufmann brought up flowing phrases with a focused and flowing sound, like the pianissimo moments in Die Loreley.

Then he sang 13 songs by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Zemlinsky and others, ending them with a deep “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (from “Rückert-Lieder”) in a restrained performance. On this the concert was supposed to end in 75 minutes without intermission. But the enthusiastic audience had other ideas, and Kaufmann fulfilled it, returning six times for an encore. During the last one, “Cäcilie” by Strauss, Kaufmann, visibly annoyed, stopped after a couple of phrases. “I’m doing everything for you,” he told the audience, “but please follow the rules and don’t make films!” People applauded in support, then he started over – and sang energetically.

Although Liverman was rightly praised for his harrowing performance on Fire, he sometimes found it difficult to be heard over the Metropolitan orchestra. However, in the Armory, which was joined by the excellent pianist Mayra Huang, his sound almost filled the space. It was thrilling to hear his terrifying tale of Low’s “Erlkönig” (Goethe’s chilling poem, best known for Schubert’s setting). And he balanced powerful intensity with mesmerizing intimate singing in songs by Strauss, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, performed with taste and talent by Huang.

Then, turning to the works of black composers, Liverman brought impressive directness to Margaret Bonds’ Three Portraits of Dreams (lyrics by Langston Hughes), which can be heard on his recent album, Dreams of a New Day: Songs of Black Composers. “The songs of H. Leslie Adams and Damien Snead were also special, reminiscent of the elegant stylistic meeting place of art song and American standards. I was touched and impressed when Liverman performed his arrangement of a medley of music by Brian McKnight – his favorite R&B artist, he explained – humming with perfect casualness, deftly accompanying himself on the piano.

Not many opera singers have this skill, let alone the courage. Along the way, he explored the forgotten legacy of American artists, whose works speak to him personally.

World Nation News Desk
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