Garanča delivers a season highlight in brilliant Carnegie recital
When A-list opera stars appear at Carnegie Hall, their recitals tend to be so popular that they have to be staged in the main auditorium. Many would say a more intimate venue is preferable—indeed, much of the art song repertoire was crafted for a setting no larger than an ordinary living room. In a grander place, though, the size of the event can contribute to the magnitude of the feeling, especially with an artist such as Elīna Garanča, who can convey her musical ideas clearly even in a cavernous theater.
For a recital that turned out to be so memorable, Garanča’s performance on Sunday had a slow start as she dove into the all-Brahms top half of her program. Her first selection, “Liebestreu,” showed little urgency in its tense opening lines, and a similar detachment characterized the first several of her selections. It took little time, though, for the mezzo to find her artistic footing and turn this into one of the most rewarding recitals of the season.
She came alive in “O liebliche Wangen,” swept away by the rushing passion of the song, earning an outburst of premature applause. The natural beauty of Garanča’s voice is well attested—a firm, dark instrument laced with smoke. Yet what truly sets her apart from other artists with natural gifts is her extraordinary control, enabling her to rein in the burning power of her voice without losing any color. The soft, comforting warmth of “Sapphische Ode” made Carnegie’s main auditorium feel as intimate as a private parlor.
A number of the songs on this recital required the singer to vary color, affect, and mood. Chief among these was the last item of the first half, “Von ewiger Liebe”—both here and in the earlier “Mädchenlied,” she clearly conveyed a strong mix of emotions and made many instantaneous changes of hue, altering the mood of a line in a fraction of a second.
Kevin Murphy’s work as her accompanist was hit-or-miss, better as pure piano playing than as collaboration: he too has a terrific sense of color, and in his best moments coaxed gorgeous sounds out of the piano, such as the limpid, flowing arpeggios of “Es träumte mir,” and the soft rolling of “Ruhe, Süssliebchen,” gently tugging at the tempo. Unfortunately, he too often let that tugging go too far, stretching the line away from his partner.
Garanča felt less naturally at home in a trio of songs by Henri Duparc, though these, too, had astonishing moments. “Au pays où se fait la guerre” showed tremendous depth of feeling; she played the song almost like an operatic scene, which overpowered the music somewhat but was nonetheless an effective approach to a text of such scope and emotional charge. “Phidylé” began with spellbinding calm, ultimately giving way to an enormous burst of passion, unleashing the blazing power of her top range as nowhere else to that point on the program.
As impressive as the French and German sets had been, her selection of Rachmaninoff songs ended the program in sensational fashion, showing off the very best of her artistry. She began by blowing the doors off with the urgent “Oh no, I beg you,” and followed immediately with “I have grown fond of sorrow,” a quintessential Russian lament. The poetry of the text came alive in her interpretation, a wonderful, indulgently gloomy collection of loving sighs.
It would not have been hard to guess that “Sing not to me, beautiful maiden” would be a strong ending to the program, occupying as it does a place among the most beloved songs of the Russian song repertoire. Garanča’s rendition of the classic will be hard to forget. In all of her Russian selections her voice sounded its very best—rich, full of color, viscous, blooming with passion. Here, that fullness of sound helped her reach down into vast depths of grief before tapering at last into ghostly wailing in the final reprise of the tearful opening stanza.
Roaring applause was rewarded with three encores: returning to the German rep, Garanča offered a joyous swirl of passion in Brahms’s “Meine Liebe ist grün.” Robert Schumann’s “Widmung” had the feel of a parlor romance, expressing boundless passion but showing noble restraint.
Garanča elected to close with an item from her own country, “Aizver actinas un smaidi” (“Close your eyes and smile,” as Garanča announced it) by the Latvian composer Jāzeps Vītols. This is an exquisite gem of a song, a simple, aching, tender melody accompanied by soft pulsing in the right hand of the piano. This was no grand closing statement, but the honest delicacy with which Garanča sang it made it a perfect, personal way to cap such a momentous recital.