For a Song
Alice Tully Hall
Songs of Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and Ravel
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
Baritone Simon Keenlyside and pianist Julius Drake presented an exceptionally well-constructed recital program at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday afternoon. If there was a theme to the selections, it was the diversity of the masters. Beginning with Schubert, the pair concentrated on the heroic ballads rather than the familiar and timeless lieder. In fact, only Fischerweise was generally known to the crowd, eliminating the joy of a Schubertiade singalong, but replacing it with a more lofty and dramatic atmosphere.
Mr. Keenlyside is especially impressive for what he does not do. As an operatic star in the making, it must be very tempting for him to infuse his lieder with characterization and yet he does not, opting instead to let the music be the focal point of the audience member’s attention rather than allowing ego and thespianism to carry the day. This is especially refreshing as so many Metropolitan escapees use the song recital as simply a cover to present their own most boffo arias in the encore portion of the event (and, of course, to sell CD’s in the lobby).
The most satisfying portion of the program was a scatter-shot look at Mahler, a man, as it turns out, of many differing styles. One of the Rueckertlieder is a frozen depiction of a memory, so delicate in its construction that it appears to be almost a double haiku (Rueckert was a professor of Oriental literature). This song, Ich atmet' einen linden Duft, was written as another love song to Alma and is usually dismissed as the weakest of the lot. Actually it is a brilliant contrast of two images of a lime twig being presented as a fragrant token of infatuation. The poem is in two stanzas. The first describes the memory of a past tryst:
Von lieber Hand
("a gift received from loving hand")
while the second expresses the present overwhelming sensation of the aroma of limes and love (Rueckert seems to have anticipated the theory that déjà vu is actually triggered by olfactory impulses). The fulcrum of the piece is the changing of one little word. The first stanza ends:
Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft
While the second begins:
Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft (both italics mine)
Not only has the tense changed from past to present, but the space between the two stanzas has taken on the role of a synapse and the entire poem is framed as a physical description of a wonderful memory. Mahler imbued his expressions of passion for Alma with a deep intellectual content. He didn't write mere ditties.
Messrs. Drake and Keenlyside presented a wonderfully breathless reading of this hidden twinkling jewel, as well as a humorous romp through St. Anthony preaching to the fish. Perhaps the best performance of the day was a ravishing Liebst du um Schoenheit, a preview of a set of French love songs that comprised the encore section of this recital. There was not an aria to be heard at any point.
Introducing the Debussy and Faure dessert was a very nimble reading of Ravel’s Histoire Naturelles wherein Mr. Drake was the acknowledged principal, creating fascinating portrayals of the various animals keyboardside while Keenlyside maintained the lyrical line.
Frederick L. Kirshnit