Lucy Crowe’s art shines on a mixed night

Thu Apr 10, 2014 at 3:41 pm
Soprano Lucy Crowe performed a recital Wednesday night at Zankel Hall.

Soprano Lucy Crowe performed a recital Wednesday night at Zankel Hall.

It is both the gift and the curse of live performance that not everything always goes exactly “right.” No instrument is more temperamental than the human voice, and soprano Lucy Crowe’s was not fully cooperating for her recital in Weill Hall on Wednesday. A secure artist, she did not let that stop her from delivering a rewarding performance.

Crowe never seemed to get comfortable on the first half of her program. In all of her selections there were traces of vocal color and refinement—she has a bright, nimble voice and a quick and easy vibrato—but her tone was often slow to catch hold. In the first song of her Schubert set, “Der Fluss,” she was oddly quiet and her top notes did not fully register, as though she were marking.

Her partner, Anna Tillbrook, was not quite settled into this material either, failing to capture the rich, varied colors of the piano’s waves in “Am See,” and placing notes too meticulously in the opening of “An den Mond.”

Crowe’s other German selections were the Seven Early Songs of Alban Berg. Vocal unease notwithstanding, the artistry she displayed in this set was stunning. This is not the hardcore atonality of Wozzeck, but songs that feature searching, winding vocal lines of powerful complexity. She brought astounding clarity and understanding to the music, approaching the free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness phrases with specific intent.

Originally conceived for soprano and orchestra, Sibelius’s myth-inspired tone poem Luonnotar is exceedingly rare as a recital piece (and it’s not particularly common on symphony programs either). The composer’s piano arrangement is unsuccessful, with the orchestra’s magical, mysterious shimmer largely lost in the reduction. Crowe showed dramatic sensitivity and conviction in her interpretation, but still struggled to find her full voice. To be fair, Weill’s acoustics were not kind to her, providing little cushion and causing her high fortes to pierce rather than swell.

To say Crowe was an entirely different soprano on the second half would be going too far, but where she seemed unsettled in her German and Finnish rep, her voice sounded right at home in her native tongue. She still had some trouble up high, but even from the beginning of her first selection, “Silent Noon” from Vaughan Williams’s The House of Life, there was more shine in her voice. In “Sleep” from Ivor Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs she pleaded with a flowing, flowering tone. Tilbrook came to life, too, finding more sentiment and a more varied palette in her playing.

Among a selection of folk songs from the British Isles, the spacious melody of “She Moved Through the Fair” stood out, sung a capella with a dreamlike calm, as did “The Ash Grove,” a Britten arrangement played with and sung with storybook simplicity. Another Britten recasting, “The Salley Gardens,” was less successful, as an overly busy piano part smothered the spiritual purity of the vocal line.

What was most remarkable, and what came across most apparently, was Crowe’s gift for compelling narrative, which was on display in Frank Bridge’s “Love Went a-Riding,” and even more so in Walton’s cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table. The final song of this cycle, which ended her program, was her most charming, and her most impressive vocally: “Rhyme,” which mimics the sounds of London’s church bells, requires nimble and accurate coloratura. Crowe dispatched the song with cheek and aplomb.

Crowe admitted to being in a summery mood as she announced her encore; “The Last Rose of Summer” would have been a fair guess based on what had come before, but instead she gave us a smoky “Summertime,” reveling in the sultry laziness of Gershwin’s classic.

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