Polish and Russian Songs
Alice Tully Hall
Frederic Chopin: Five Polish Songs
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz: Six Songs
Witold Lutoslawski: Five Songs to Poems by Kazimiera Illakowicz
Modest Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Four Songs
Ewa Podles (contralto)
Jerzy Marchwinski (piano)
Polish music is more than Chopin piano pieces and Gorecki's New Age spiritualism but not much of it is performed in the West. It takes Polish artists to promote the music of their homeland and the husband and wife team of Jerzy Marchwinski and Ewa Podles are doing just that. Ms. Podles is the possessor of a superior contralto with a range that can only be described, although in the most complimentary of terms, as freakish. Her high register is as secure as any mezzo and her lowest notes are what I have always imagined Ernestine Schumann-Heink must have been like in her prime. The Chopin songs are really just bagatelles, more famous in their Liszt piano transcriptions and at one time a staple of the Romantic repertoire, although I don't think anyone has performed them since the death of Horowitz. They were good warm-ups for Ms. Podles and she was able to immediately showcase her fine acting skills in the Lithuanian Song, a dialogue between a scolding mother and a sexually active daughter. There is not a lot of dynamic or tonal range in these pieces, but we all patiently waited for what we knew was to come.
From the opening strains of the Romanticism of the Karlowicz songs, Ms. Podles exhibited a breathy contralto (sounding at all volume levels surprisingly like a whisper) with exceptional dynamic power. Karlowicz was a Straussian fin-de-siecle figure who died prematurely in an avalanche. He was much admired by Szymanowski and started the twentieth century ballad tradition that culminated in the sensitive settings of Thaddeus Baird. During the Karlowicz we were treated to the full volume of Ms. Podles' shimmering instrument. She has no trouble projecting, in fact there is almost too much voice at her command and one gets the feeling that she had purposefully restrained herself for the intimate surroundings of Alice Tully. Ms. Podles is an opera singer who performs significant amounts of Rossini and Handel but I have no doubt that she would be quite audible as Erda or Klytemnestra if she chose to perform behind those gargantuan orchestras (she does sing Mahler).
Particularly laudable was her choice of the Lutoslawski songs as they were very dissonant and experimental. She is a close associate of Krzysztof Penderecki (he is in the process of writing an opera, Phaedra, for her) and both she and Mr. Marchwinski are obviously committed to contemporary music. The Lutoslawski commands a wide range of emotion and Ms. Podles put over these difficult pieces with ease. Her unaccompanied diminuendo at the end of the song Knights, depicting the silent, riderless horses returning from battle, was especially moving.
The repertoire after intermission was more familiar. Many song cycles are written for interchangeable voices, but some are textually suggestive of a particular vocal range. Mahler's Kindertotenlieder are best performed by a baritone because of Rueckert's poetry expressing a father's grief and Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death should really be the province of a woman since the first song Kolybel' naya (lullaby) is a description of a dialogue between a mother and both her dying child and Death himself. However, the cycle has long been a specialty of men (especially Christoff and Kipnis) because of the lower register necessary to pull it off. Ms. Podles can not only sing all of the notes roundly but can also act the part of the desperate mother. Her abrupt cutting off of the last "bayushki, bayu, bayu" (bye-bye, baby, bye) was truly chilling. The four Rachmaninoff songs were also well known and her rendition of Do Not Long For Me was heart rending, the equal of any that I have heard, even Soderstrom.
An interesting subplot to the recital was the return to the concert stage of Mr. Marchwinski who has suffered from medical problems over the last few years. He was obviously nervous at the beginning, making several mistakes in the Chopin songs, but rallied nicely in the difficult Lutoslawski and the Trepak from the Mussorgsky. The very appreciative sellout crowd was treated to three well thought out encores, a bel canto Rossini aria complete with cavatina and cabaletta, a Spanish song by Rossini and (with that marvelously breathy voice we were all thinking it anyway) the Seguidilla from Carmen. A full afternoon of music thoughtfully and expertly sung.
Ms. Podles will appear at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, October 25, 1998 with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in an all Rossini program and then goes on to appear in Prokofieff's Alexander Nevsky with the San Francisco Symphony. To find out about upcoming events at Alice Tully or Avery Fisher Halls you may consult their website at www.lincolncenter.org
Frederick L. Kirshnit