92nd St. Y
Johannes Brahms: Five Songs, Viola Sonata # 2
Maurice Ravel: Chansons madecasses, Sonatine
Claude Debussy: L'Isle joyeuse
Ernest Chausson: Chanson perpetuelle
Susanne Mentzer (mezzo)
Ann Schein (piano)
Musicians of the New York Philharmonic
When Pierre-Laurent Aimard helps to inaugurate New York’s new Zankel Hall next season, he will be performing one of the most daunting pieces in the entire piano repertoire, the ”Concord” Sonata of Charles Ives. Not listed in the glossy brochure is who will accompany him, for the work, written by the composer simply for the enjoyment of himself and his imaginary friend Rollo, also contains brief passages for viola and flute in the final movement. There are many such essays in the literature, written for unusual combinations of instruments, and these worthy efforts are hardly ever performed because of the logistics and personnel issues involved. Thus it was with extra anticipation that I attended a recital at the innovative 92nd St. Y built around a grouping of these “problem plays”. Ostensibly a recital by Susanne Mentzer, the afternoon was rather a rare opportunity for sidemen (almost exclusively women) to shine.
Mezzo Mentzer has a fabulous voice, rich and full, burnished and powerful, supple and well-trained. I have enjoyed her before and did again this day, but feel strongly that, given her extraordinary talents, she could produce a more satisfying product with just a tad more effort. Overcoming intonation problems in the Brahms song Feldeinsamkeit and adjusting her volume to balance with the viola obbligato in the succeeding pair of wiegenlieder (clichés are often based on fact: Brahms really was the best at lullabies), Ms. Mentzer cannot be faulted on a purely technical level, her every tone a juicy pear, but she never seemed to delve into the emotional heart of the matter, preferring a rather superficial, intellectually phlegmatic approach long on pyrotechnics but short on substance. Only in the very last song (by Chausson) did she exhibit that tantalizing ability to go deeper, and then the recital was over. Conventional stage wisdom may suggest leaving the audience wanting more, but this singer never quite gave her all along the way.
The highlight of this musicale was, without question, the solo performances of pianist Ann Schein. The disappointingly small crowd had greeted each set of songs with a disappointingly small ovation but went absolutely ballistic after Ms. Schein’s ethereal rendition of Ravel’s Sonatine. Joined in their expression of appreciation (rather uncharacteristically) by this critic, the assembled throng would have none of this pianist’s attempts to sit back down and begin her next piece. The insistent ovation continued until she arose once again to receive her just due of adulation, reciprocating with a knockout L’Isle joyeuse. The level of Schein’s play in the Ravel created a bit of a disproportionate perspective within which the rest of the recital had to exist, the irony strengthened by the fact that she was the only participant not given credit on the front cover of the program, but her confident and detailed reading communicated the delicate underpinnings of this diaphanous work exquisitely.
The instrumentalists, supplied by the New York Philharmonic, were adequate, Cynthia Phelps presenting a serviceable, if not insightful, 2nd Viola Sonata of Brahms. Certainly, all of the notes were there and Ms. Phelps, who is the principal of the Phil, possesses an opulent tone and fine vibrato, but, somewhat akin to Ms. Mentzer, she deigned not to take any risks in the piece, not to hurl herself into the tunnel which leads to its emotional core. In the main, today’s box of ear candy seemed to contain only soft centers.
Frederick L. Kirshnit