From Lara to Léhar, two singers rove widely in London Foundation opener

Mon Oct 19, 2015 at 4:19 pm
Steven LaBrie and Erin Wall opened the 20th season of the George London Foundation concerts Sunday at the Morgan Museum. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Steven LaBrie and Erin Wall opened the 20th season of the George London Foundation concerts Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Continuing a series that has furnished several memorable small-venue recitals over the years, the George London Foundation opened its twentieth season at the Morgan Library with a performance by a pair of London Award laureates.

Canadian soprano Erin Wall opened the proceedings with Three Songs by Korngold, Op. 22. These lieder seem to touch a number of tonalities and styles, and in them Wall showed a large voice with considerable control. She sang “Was Du mir bist” with grace and composure, though her stainless-steel timbre at times kept her from really exploring the tender qualities of the song.

The same was true of “Mit Dir zu schweigen,” a fascinating song whose tart, unhinged melodic writing is reminiscent of early Schoenberg. In “Welt ist stille eingeschlafen” she hit a high pianissimo that might have floated more magically in an opera house; in the close quarters of Gilder Lehrman Auditorium, it sounded trapped. Spencer Myer’s accompaniment bloomed, generously pedaled to achieve brightness and clarity.

Wall’s later lieder set, Strauss’s Gesänge des Orients, was more of a struggle; she crafted some lovely, wide phrases, but her breathing was labored. The chief virtue of these selections was that they showed off the clarity of her top notes, which in this auditorium were piercing. They also all unfolded at a similar pace, demanding a high level of energy that seemed to wear on her, as in “Liebesgeschenke” she ran out of breath in the third stanza and struggled to regain control.

More successful was Anne’s Act I aria from The Rake’s Progress (“No word from Tom…”). There was more color to Wall’s voice here and she was able to sustain longer lines, though she did tend towards little swooping hairpins on individual notes. She gave a compelling dramatic reading of the scene despite sacrificing diction for the sake of tone.

Baritone Steven LaBrie, meanwhile, worked in a wide array of modes and styles, starting with a set of songs by Debussy. The Texas native possesses a voice of massive power and authority, so that his account of “La mer est plus belle” was more a stormy, Romantic declamation than an expression of wonder.

It was impossible, though, not to admire the dark, coarse-grained timbre that brought rich color to all of his selections. He demonstrated superb dramatic sense and textual connection in the three Ballades de François Villon, particularly in the first, “Ballade de Villon à s’Amye,” the energy in his voice thrilling as he pushed through the end of the line, before dropping down into arresting pathos in the next. As before, Myer’s accompaniment was excellent, particularly spry in the “Ballade des femmes de Paris.”

LaBrie seemed no less suited to Romantic opera, giving a stunning rendition of Prince Yeletsky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades to start the second half. His voice felt smoother as he traced the aching lines of this music, though remnant hints of the burnt edges of his tone provided extra color.

The most unusual, but also the most rewarding, of LaBrie’s eclectic program was a set of five Mexican ballads by various composers, analogous to—though somewhat more nuanced than—the familiar Neapolitan song tradition. He approached these songs with wonderful, outsized passion, moderated with sly little turns of phrase in Augustín Lara’s in “Humo en los ojos” (“Smoke in my eyes”). His presence in María Grever’s “Despedida” (“Farewell”) was transfixing, and at one point he was so carried away by his own passion that he nearly fell backwards into the piano.

There was no encore on Sunday, though it’s hard to imagine a lighter ending than the closing duet, “Lippen schweigen” from Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow. LaBrie’s voice felt, if anything, a little big for a confection like this, but the tuneful number featured Wall at her best, sweet in her tone and suave in her demeanor.

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