Tenor vocal recital
In case you didn’t know, Austrians are intense people…
In my write-ups on concerts, I do my best to address the concert and not the pieces themselves, but that’s hard to do in some ways, especially when you’re not super familiar with said pieces.
In any case, last year, I went to see Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder performed by our very fine National Symphony Orchestra. As you dedicated readers will know, it demands some serious forces, and one of those is a tenor. The tenor’s performance (both musically and… acting-ly? dramatically?) was excellent, and I actually ended up making a note of both him and the mezzo-soprano of the evening (who happened to be featured in the recent performance of Mahler 3 under Maestro Inbal where she was, again, outstanding).
I ended up making contact with the performer, and a few months down the road, in the program for April, I saw a familiar name. Well, three familiar names. The first two were ‘Schubert’ and ‘Mahler’, the latter being the one that attracted my interest most readily, but also the Chinese name. It was the aforementioned tenor, and we did end up talking about the recital. I took a few hours off of work to attend, and it fits quite nicely into the end of our three-week teeny Germanic series that began with Beethoven and will terminate with Mahler. So now we have a review of pieces by both of these composers. First is Schubert’s Schwanengesang, followed by Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
I went into the concert with a few thoughts.
- I have never attended a vocal recital of any kind. I’ve been to concerts featuring vocal soloists (not the least of which are Gurrelieder and Mahler 3), as well as some that featured a vocalist of some kind with an orchestra, but never just a vocalist and a piano.
- I’ve never listened to Schwanengesang.
- I can’t wait to hear Mahler’s songs live. I’m quite familiar with the symphonies (especially the Wunderhorn symphonies) so it will be nice to hear them in their original forms.
suitable venue. The recital hall is obviously more intimate: it’s small, all one level (auditorium seating) and decorated in beautiful hardwoods. It was a beautiful setup for the evening, cozy and close-up.
There was a new pianist on stage for the Mahler. I realized at this point that the Schubert pianist played so delightfully, so pleasantly that it was almost unnoticeable, almost like when the weather is so perfect that you aren’t even consciously aware of the weather. It’s just perfect. I had that thought.
Mahler, though, is a symphonist, and this was the first time I’d heard anything of his on the piano. Again, I’ll try not to address the piece itself, but suffice it to say it is noticeably more modern than the Schubert, even though I do often think of these two composers as having some deep connection. Mahler is more outlandish, more brazen, more openly emotional. There’s the braying of a donkey, the sounds of birds, and more. While Mahler’s range of emotion is similar to that of Schubert’s (the contrast between bliss, simple pleasure, and deep despair), it’s also far more extreme, and in all of these ways, the performer must adapt. Mahler has never been just ‘in an okay mood.’ So at least from my perspective, it demands much more from the performer, not only musically, but dramatically (is there a better word for the acting part of this?) And Kai nailed it. He almost seemed more at home with something a little more lively, something you could really sink your teeth into. It was intense and engaging, and he performed it that way. Bravo.
There were, however, a few things that struck me. First, our soloist is not a native German speaker, and had I not had the text in my lap, I obviously wouldn’t have noticed, but memorizing two hours of text in a language very different from your own obviously presents its own challenges.
Musically, in works that showed up in Mahler’s early symphonies, especially Es sungen drei Engel süßen Gesang and Urlicht (from the second symphony I love so much) (Ablösung im Sommer appears in the third symphony, but in melody alone, no voice), I am quite used to the angelic voice of a soprano or mezzo-soprano (or a whole chorus of them, as the case may be). Urlicht struck me as a challenge for a tenor, because, for one, there are some quite high passages, but all of that aside, it still nearly brought me to tears.
I want this not to be a commentary on these pieces as much as the performance of them, but it’s hard to separate the two when they create such a captivating concert. It was a heavy program, no doubt, and I would guess these two works (or any two works like these) are rarely performed together, but there was a certain beauty to it (that may or may not have been intentional).
Schubert was 31 years (nine months, 19 days) old when he died. Relatively speaking, Mahler was old, but still died quite young, at only 51. Both were incredibly talented lyricists, Austrian, loved nature, the human voice, and attained only some degree of fame and success in their lifetimes. They both also straddled eras: Schubert the Classical and Romantic, Mahler the 19th and 20th centuries. The program not only provided an incredibly convincing performance of very rich, powerful music, but gave a lot of food for thought as a compare-and-contrast exercise.
All of that aside, the success of the evening lies not just in Schubert or in Mahler, but in a compelling performance by the focus of the evening: the vocalist. He had a commanding presence on stage, one that drew your eye to him and made you want to focus less on ‘following along’ in the text and just enjoy the music. It was thoroughly enjoyable, both musically and historically.
A soloist isn’t just a musician sitting in an ensemble; he expresses his thoughts and emotions to an intimate crowd, and it takes a talented musician and personality to do justice to a story that an audience can understand (at least in this case) only musically. It was a performance that one felt privileged to attend, a rare opportunity. I was quite glad to have been in attendance.