How wonderful to follow up yesterday’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (cross-reference below) with an art song recital by mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča and pianist Kevin Murphy that proved to be some of the finest music making heard in many years.
With an artistic trust of two (compared with the extra-democratic OCO), the chance for overall unity, vision and sense of purpose is much, much higher¾this program did not disappoint on any of those fronts.
Two sets of Brahms lieder comprised the first half, followed by three songs from Henri Duparc (the ill-fated composer’s entire output¾despite a long, but tortured life¾was a mere 17 songs) and closed with eight more from Sergei Rachmaninoff.
At one time or another, all featured dreams and love (lost and found); the bookends (Brahms, Rachmaninoff) flirted with happiness while the brief middle group was decidedly darker (“To the War-torn Land” being a model of doomed hope; “Ecstasy” extolling the joys of A slumber as sweet as death… and the apparent sequel to “War-Torn”¾ “Phidylé”¾another never-ending wait for a lost loved one seems as unlikely to end any better than the composer’s illness-fraught existence).
Garanča created her own dramatic narrative by choosing and arranging works with immediate contrast (Brahms’ “Song of the Maiden”, a “choose me” spinning song followed up by “The May Night”, overflowing with dark shadows, lonely tears and burning cheeks; from Rachmaninoff, the seemingly impossible satisfactory resolution in “I Wait for Thee” coupled with the much more optimistic “Lilacs”, where¾at least¾My modest happiness blooms. In almost every case, the selections were out of their original orderings and¾save and except for the initial pair: “Love’s Devotion”, Op. 3, No. 1 and “Love and Springtime II”, Op. 3, No, 3 as well as Rachmaninoff’s “Twilight”, Op. 21 No. 3 then “They Answered”, Op. 21. No. 4¾out of their opus numbers.
Musically, there was scarcely a blemished note. Garanča’s power, control, compelling sense of introspection and incredible changes of register (notably in “War-torn”; unforgettable in “They Answered”) can only be envied by those who attempt this repertoire.
Murphy displayed the perfect understanding of when his role ought to be supportive or to take stage in a manner that foreshadows the vocal drama to come rather than just demonstrate his mastery of the keyboard (“O if I Only Knew the Road Back” and “I Dreamed”, two memorable examples).
Not only the artistic director for the music on offer, Garanča proved to be a masterful stage director as well. When moments of despair arose, leaning into the piano visually reinforced her character’s angst. Most effective of all was stepping forward towards the audience and looking the rapt patrons in the eye, silently recounting the shared experience as Murphy concluded the journey with the extended adieu of “Sing Not to Me, Beautiful Maiden.”
The delighted crowd demanded and received three brief encores, including the final song “Close Your Eyes and Smile” (everyone did!) by countryman Jāzeps Vītols, filling Latvians in the hall with admiration and pride.
Here’s to much more from Garanča both in recital, in the world’s finest opera houses and¾when the timing seems right¾in the director’s chair. JWR