Finding a Niche
Weill Recital Hall
Norah Amsellem (soprano),
Antoine Palloc (piano)
The song has always occupied a strange corner in the Pantheon of classical music. There is really no composer of extreme prominence (except perhaps for Schubert) who is known primarily as a composer of songs, rather virtually all of the greats have songs to their credit, although most of the individual ones are unknown even to their more ardent fans. There are a few men who wrote virtually only songs but they are primarily assigned to the footnotes of music history. A neglected composer like Reynaldo Hahn, for example, is a songsmith par excellence but not exactly a household name. The song recital has also become something of an anachronism, no longer a large part of the concert season but rather an aberration. Long gone are the days of a John McCormack or a Jenny Lind and it is generally accepted today that the only path to stardom for a singer is the operatic stage.
Norah Amsellem is trudging along that path, drawing praise for her frequent Michaelas in both New York and Paris and starting to expand her basic repertoire. Hers is an odd sort of a voice, not really a soprano and not quite a mezzo, thick and expressive but only pure in the quieter dynamics, and Ms. Amsellem is currently attempting to find her place in the complex world of vocal music. Her medium is the French song and she traversed it last evening at Weill for an obviously operatic crowd who would probably have been more at home at a presentation of aria highlights. There was a direct connection with the audience, however, as Ms. Amsellem chose songs of major operatic composers, a good way to explore some of the most neglected of all of the repertoire.
The first set was comprised of songs written as tryouts for operatic scenes to come. Ms. Amsellem is at home in the music of Bellini, Franchetti and Puccini and sang with the appropriate large stage voce di testa, shaking the chandeliers of Weill but not pleasing the ear's quest for sonic beauty. She settled in to the Debussy songs more satisfyingly, projecting the proper mystery in the numbers from Ariettes oubliees and the sense of the surreal in the early Mallarme song Apparition.
The highlight of the first half was a wonderful piece de concert by Alfred Bachelet, a forgotten soldier in the Wagnerian wars of the first half of the last century. Ms. Amsellem really put over the emotion in his Chere Nuit while struggling all night with the clumsy pianism of her partner Antoine Palloc. However, throughout the program it seemed as if something were not quite right and I think that the root cause is her direct ratio of improper intonation to volume, not allowing her to explore a full dynamic range without trying the limits of our auditory patience.
After a sprightly set of Poulenc, Ms. Amsellem tried unsuccessfully to navigate the Rhine and the Danube with a set of Richard Strauss songs woefully miscast. Of course much of the problem was with Mr. Palloc, his uneven cradle rocking in the Wiegenlied assuring that this particular baby will be recounting their nursery experiences to their therapist 30 years hence. Strangely, Ms. Amsellem's very husky vocal qualities, which should have fit the Teutonic idiom, only served to make her movement from one note to the other less nimble. She needs to reevaluate her strengths and stick to the lighter Gallic sounds.
The final set was all Rachmaninoff. Here we have a composer who probably produced his finest music for solo voice and piano but became beloved through his piano and orchestra writing. Ms. Amsellem was better here, sounding quite warm and grandmotherly. However, when she ever attempted to trot out La Vie en Rose as an encore, she showed how a large voice can swallow a delicate tune and made us all long to run home to our old Edith Piaf discs. There is a good future in store for this young woman on the operatic stage, but her recital strategy needs to center around the motto "less is more".
Frederick L. Kirshnit