Trois Chansons de Bilitis
Seven Hungarian Folksongs [Fekete föd; Annyi bánat; Hatforintos nóta; A tömlöcben; Régi Keserves; Eddig való dolgom; Párositó 1]
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (selection): [Nature, the gentlest mother; There came a wind like a bugle; The world feels dusty; Dear March, come in!; Sleep is supposed to be; Going to Heaven!]
Dawn Upshaw (soprano) &
Gilbert Kalish (piano)
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 14 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
There were changes to the advertised programme, to the order and songs performed. This recital demonstrated the engaging and communicative character of Dawn Upshaw, and whilst it is often the case that the accompanist is given a mention as an afterthought, if then, Gilbert Kalish proved to be on an equal footing with his distinguished singer.
If the opening Schubert group found Upshaw in less than ideal form and in repertoire to which she is not so well suited, then one could still not fail to be captivated by her charm and by her characteristic voice. To quote Herbert Howells writing of another singer: “a voice of dewy freshness,” and certainly the bright-eyed qualities she brought to Schubert were perhaps sufficient and enjoyable in themselves.
Im Frühling – not the easiest song to start a recital with – was brightly delivered, although the voice was not as substantial or well projected as it later became. The barely suppressed eroticism of Versunken certainly came over, quite rapturously in fact, and the eponymous trout in Die Forelle darted amiably. In place of two other Schubert songs, we heard Der Musensohn, in which Upshaw’s breathless (in the right sense) delivery was more than matched by the élan and nimble playing of Gilbert Kalish. But the bittersweet, not to mention darker qualities, which are omnipresent in Schubert, were not attended to here; perhaps the group as a whole was insufficiently contrasted.
Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis (replacing the second series of Fêtes galantes) were another matter. Upshaw was in perfect command of these coolly sensuous settings, never stepping over the limit into over-emotional excess. Her command of French seemed more assured than her German; indeed, she weighted the words and their import as meaningfully as Kalish attended to Debussy’s poignant harmonies. The wonder is that neither artist appeared put off by some horribly intrusive coughing during and between the songs.
John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs concluded the first half. Mirabai lived in sixteenth-century India and wrote, sang and danced poems in the street rather than join her husband – as was the custom – on his funeral pyre. First performed in 1983, Harbison’s settings do not attempt any kind of ethnic musical imitation. Instead, they focus on the significance of the texts, which deal with an individual’s human experiences and, as chosen, the poems form a kind of narrative. The voice is often quite independent from the accompaniment, as in the first song where a wide-ranging vocal line, rather declamatory in character, is set against piano flourishes and figurations. Elsewhere, a radiant, exultant expression is required, and this was provided, as was contrasted repose in “Where did you go?” The opening of the concluding “Don’t go, don’t go” was quite haunting, and it is difficult to imagine a more convincing rendition of this cycle.
The seven Bartók folksong arrangements were selected from two collections – the set of eight dating from 1907-17 and the 1929 group of twenty – and made for a most effective grouping. Upshaw relished the Hungarian texts and projected their meaning with consummate vitality. Whether in the stomping dance-like songs or in those with plaintive laments, their meanings were made abundantly clear. Bartók does not spare the pianist, and the often-spiky writing was relished and played with character.
Returning to home territory, as it were, the six songs taken from Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson were similarly well-chosen, my only regret being that the whole cycle wasn’t performed. With Upshaw avoiding coyness and affected delivery, these remarkable texts in Copland’s sympathetic settings came across with unalloyed freshness. The composer’s varied response to Dickinson’s words was particularly apparent, from the Satie-like restraint of “The world feels dusty” to the sleight of hand that permeates “Going to Heaven!”.
Having given a recital of consistent pleasure and interest, Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish then delighted with two of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs – the Weill-like irony of “Black Max” and the poignant “Waiting”. Both were given with appropriate and authentic expression, the latter being particularly moving. This was altogether a pleasurable occasion.