An enchanted Spanish evening from Leonard and Isbin
At the intermission of Isabel Leonard and Sharon Isbin’s recital in Zankel Hall on Thursday, one satisfied listener remarked, “This has been a really nice change of pace.”
He was right, in a sense. Spanish songs constitute a largely overlooked corner of the recital corpus these days, which is a shame given the richness and individuality of the repertoire. Rarer still is an opportunity these songs accompanied by guitar, due to the instrument’s limited use in the concert-hall music of the Classical and Romantic periods. With such formidable proponents as Leonard and Isbin, one hopes that such recitals in the future will be less “change of pace” and more of a regular attraction.
Leonard is a true treasure, an immensely talented and charismatic mezzo-soprano, already one of the world’s leading artists though still relatively early in her career. Although she has made her name thus far almost exclusively as an operatic singer, her recital with Isbin on Thursday proved a truly enchanting evening of song.
Leonard showed a commanding presence immediately from the start of her first set of Old Spanish Songs by Federico García Lorca. The dark, wood-smoke tone that she brought to these songs was gorgeous, embracing the natural gravel of her lower-middle voice and even adding a little glottal friction here and there for extra color.
Not surprising for so talented an actress, Leonard has a particular gift for narrative, paying keen attention to the text and bringing that understanding into her musical interpretation. The “Romance de Don Boyso,” an extended ballad with a simple, beguiling melody, was haunting; her vivid account, bringing subtle variation to each verse, culminated in a joyful turn in the final stanza.
In all her accompaniments, many of them her own transcriptions, Isbin’s playing was superb; both limpid and lyrical. She had several solo selections, as well, including Andrés Segovia’s transcription of Albéniz’s celebrated Asturias, which was thrillingly executed, beginning as just a rumor of excitement and growing into a whirlwind. Even more impressive was Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, a beautifully singing, soft-spoken reminiscence.
A Carnegie Hall co-commision, Richard Danielpour’s Of Love and Longing, received its world premiere on Thursday. A short cycle of three songs in English, the set hangs together nicely, a complementary mix of moods, all three echoing somewhat the Spanish idiom of the evening in their tonality. “Listen” features a tugging, sighing melody to a limping accompaniment; jaunty syncopations create a whirling dance in “This Night of Love”; “Your Beauty” is a breezy, generous serenade.
The three songs are based on poems by Rumì in English translations that are, frankly, miserable—the first in particular seems slavishly literal, couplets of ungainly rhymes cobbled together with tape. (“From the sweet home of my bed I was torn/ So my pain and crucial longing was born.”) It’s remarkable how a compelling musical setting can mask even the most unwieldy poetry.
Of de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, “Polo” stood out for its intensity, as Leonard leaned on the harder edge of her voice, to riveting effect. A single item on the program, Joaquín Rodrigo’s somber and heart-wrenching Aranjuez, ma pensée, was sung in French. Leonard’s command of the language is superb, and it suits her voice well, the rich color of her tone filling out the spacious vowels.
Leonard had been a charming emcee for the entire evening, and when met with enthusiastic applause at the conclusion of the program cheekily asked, “Haven’t you all had enough?” “No!”, of course, was the resounding response, and the pair indulged the listeners with one more item, a performance of Augustin Lara’s “Granada” so dramatic that it seemed almost in need of lighting cues.