Deborah Voigt & Brian Zeger in New York

Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt, K619
Non t’accostare all’urna; Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata; Brindisi [second version]; In solitaria stanza
Schlechtes Wetter, Op.69/5; Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden, Op.21/3; Lied der Frauen, Op.68/6
Contrasto; Nebbie; Notte; Povero core
Three Browning Songs [The Year’s at the Spring; Ah, Love but a Day; I Send My Heart up to Thee]
When My Soul Touches Yours; So Pretty; Another Love; Piccola serenata; Arias and Barcarolles – Greeting; It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good; West Side Story – Somewhere

Deborah Voigt (soprano) & Brian Zeger (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 11 May, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

This recital by soprano Deborah Voigt and pianist Brian Zeger was rather slow getting started, but gathered momentum as the evening progressed.

Voigt began with Mozart’s seldom-heard solo cantata “Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt” (You Who Honour the Creator of the Infinite Universe), K.619. Mozart, a Mason, found inspiration in Masonic ideals for this work – and others, including “Die Zauberflöte”, which was already in gestation when the cantata was completed. The text is an appeal to those of all religions for universal love, friendship and brotherhood.

After a brief Andante maestoso piano introduction, the cantata alternated between Andante and Allegro arias interspersed with recitative passages, employing quadruple, triple and compound meters, and was capped off by the piano’s dramatic descending run and resolving chords. Although Voigt was in good voice, neither she nor Zeger generated the full measure of dramatic impact implicit in the score, making this feel like little more than a warm-up.

Next was a set of songs by Verdi, composed over a span of some thirty years. There were three rather serious settings from 1838, a year before his first opera, “Oberto”, and two lively songs – “Brindisi” (Drinking Song) from 1845 (by which time he had already been catapulted to fame by his third opera, “Nabucco”) and “Stornello” (Rhyme) from 1869, when Verdi was already firmly established as a great operatic composer.

Voigt sang “Non t’accostare all’urna” with great solemnity, except for an agitated interlude in its dramatic third stanza. There was considerable propulsive motion in “Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata”, but also many points at which the music slowed or paused altogether. As the song came to its end, Voigt made liberal use of rubato to give an aura of grandeur to Gretchen’s prayer to the Mater Dolorosa in Goethe’s “Faust” (in Italian translation).

A much lighter tone prevailed in “Brindisi” (Verdi’s second version), a rollicking drinking song with a vocal line suggesting the singer’s inebriated state. The mood turned serious once more with “In solitaria stanza” with its arpeggiated accompaniment, and Voigt capped off the set with the lively and humorous “Stornello”, in which a rejected lover declares her determination to “pick new roses in other gardens” and rejoice “all night and day long”. Despite Voigt’s delightful performance of this concluding song, this set suffered both from insufficient emotional variety among the songs and from accompaniments with too few moments of interest beyond harmonising the vocal line.

It was with three Richard Strauss songs that the recital really came to life. Voigt was truly in her element in this music, and her increased sense of engagement made the drama of the songs come through much more effectively. At the same time, Zeger was afforded much more interesting accompaniments with which to prove his mettle as a full partner in the music-making, beginning with the stormy piano part that begins “Schlechtes Wetter“ (Bad Weather). In this song, Voigt gave just the right ironic twist to Heine’s sentimental fantasy scenario, based on the most mundane of events.

In “Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden” (Ah Love, I Must Now Leave) Voigt was subdued, allowing the mournful text to come through with clarity. In this song and the succeeding “Lied der Frauen” (Song of the Women), she was at her best when she sang softly, as some of the loudest notes did not seem to resonate as felicitously in the Hall. In her portrayal in the latter song of the fearful wives of seamen, shepherds, miners and warriors, she ran a broad gamut of emotions, leading to the song’s hymn-like conclusion.

The second half of Voigt’s programme was better still, beginning with a marvellous performance of four songs by Ottorino Respighi. She and Zeger sang and played these atmospheric works with clarity and delicacy. “Contrasto” (Contrast) was sweetly lyrical in its metaphorical depiction of moonlight as weeping on the dew, and “Nebbie” (Mists) was dark and moody in evoking a chilling, nocturnal fog. In the light and shimmering “Notte” (Night), Voigt and Zeger projected the image of a fantastic, flower-scented garden in which “the night weeps her tears” – an image much like that in “Contrasto”. In the concluding “Povero core” (Poor Heart), the text looked inward at the poet’s emotions rather than (as in each of the previous three songs) at aspects of nature. Both Voigt’s dark vocal tone and Zeger’s accompaniment well suited this song’s rather serious theme.

Voigt’s voice was at its creamy best in Amy Beach’s 1900 setting of three Robert Browning poems. “The Year’s at the Spring”, sung with full-throated exuberance, welcomed the advent of the season, climactically exclaiming, “God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world!” The mood became darker in “Ah, Love but a Day” which marks the passage from summer to autumn with an expression of fear that love may similarly cool with advancing age. In the ardent love song, “I Send My Heart up to Thee”, a setting of Browning’s “In a Gondola”, the pulse of the music’s 9/8 compound meter reflects the boat’s rocking on Venetian waterways. Voigt sang the final repetition of the song’s opening verse with simple clarity, bringing this set to a pleasing close.

The recital concluded with a diverse set of songs by Leonard Bernstein that are, for the most part, little known, but were well worth hearing, particularly in idiomatic performances such as Voigt offered. The highly chromatic “When My Soul Touches Yours” sets an English translation of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke and is rich in harmonic and rhythmic interest. Voigt’s vocal line began seriously but became more gentle and lyrical as the song progressed, culminating in a sustained note that felt like it would never completely fade away. The anti-war message of “So Pretty”, a Vietnam War-era protest song, had a particular resonance with the Carnegie Hall audience. After a short, dissonant opening in the piano, Voigt’s simple vocal line portrayed a schoolchild asking her teacher why the war is killing people who are “so pretty”. When she is told “they must die for peace, you understand”, she declares, “I don’t understand”, sustaining the final note above dissonant piano chords.

Two of the Bernstein songs shared the common fate of having been deleted from the shows for which they were composed. “Another Love” was dropped from the 1950 musical version of “Peter Pan” and “It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good” was cut from “On the Town” before its 1944 opening. Two others were composed to mark special occasions. Voigt took “Piccola serenata”, written to honour Karl Böhm on his 85th-birthday, at a quick tempo rather than spinning out its syllables as a lyrical vocalise, and gave a gentle, touching performance of “Greeting”, in which Bernstein celebrated the birth of his son. Voigt ended her recital with a powerful rendition of a very familiar song – “Somewhere”, from “West Side Story”.

Voigt offered four encores, beginning with Strauss’s ”Zueignung” (Dedication), a song often chosen for this purpose, but seldom performed this well. Her second was “Content to Be Behind Me”, a delightfully humorous song written expressly for Voigt and Zeger by Ben Moore, which offers a diva’s view of her faithful and subservient accompanist: “He’ll never claim applause or fame, and that is why I love him so”. Incorporated into the song is a nearly full-length parody of Schubert’s “Die Forelle”, in which the accompanist (whose name is usually omitted or misspelled in reviews) is depicted as content to travel the world for free without having to learn concertos – although a couple of interruptions quoting Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto suggested otherwise. But in the end, of course, came praise: “Boy oh boy can that guy play!” The song was a great hit with the audience – just as a previous encore parody by Moore, “Wagner Roles”, had been at Voigt’s 2004 Carnegie Hall recital (before her drastic reduction in weight). Next came a jazzy account of Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” with Voigt joining Zeger at the keyboard for some four-handed fun, and finally, a sumptuous rendition of Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, from “Showboat”.

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