Brahms a better fit for baritone Williams at 92Y than birthday honoree Beethoven

Thu Jan 23, 2020 at 2:46 pm
Roderick Williams (l) opened a Beethoven birthday series curated by pianist Julius Drake on Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y. Photos: Grove Artists; Marco Borggreve

Beethoven anniversary programming hasn’t quite hit full speed yet, but most New York institutions are planning to get in on the celebration in one way or another. New Yorkers can expect to see a fair number of Beethoven binges, such as next month’s complete symphonic cycle at Carnegie Hall. 

The 92nd Street Y’s observance of the occasion is outside the box, to say the least: Rather than presenting a number of different pieces by music’s first great romantic, the inaugural season of 92Y’s vocal series is featuring An die ferne Geliebte on every single program, a total of five performances, all by different singers. 

On Wednesday night the cycle kicked off baritone Roderick Williams’s recital with Julius Drake, a fellow Londoner who curated the series and is accompanying all five performances. It did not make for the most convincing start to the evening; Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92Y’s main venue, is itself a dry room, a tough space for a singer to fill. Yet Williams himself did not seem particularly connected to the piece. His voice sounded gray and his approach was overly buttoned-up in what is — nominally, at least — a passionate work.

In all, Beethoven’s cycle seemed an odd prologue to what ended up being the main thrust of Wednesday’s program: a narrative adaptation of Brahms’s 15 Romances on L. Tieck’s Die schöne Magelone. The Brahms set is not truly a cycle in the same way as the Beethoven. The six songs of An die ferne Geliebte form an integral whole. The poems of 15 Romances, although loosely tied to the original tale of “The Fair Magelone,” have been mostly stripped of the underlying story, leaving 15 texts that show varying emotional states without a clear progression.

This performance attempted to reinstate the story as a way of giving the poems more structure: before each song, animations by Cristina Garcia Martin, projected behind the piano, illustrated the plot while Adam Gopnik provided narration. The effect was charming enough: the childlike style of the drawings, with their rudimentary lines and rough fill, conveyed a storybook innocence, supported by Gopnik’s earnest narration. 

There was certainly a tradeoff, though: While the animations helped tie the songs together in a narrative sense, it left them completely disjointed musically, as several minutes of exposition after each made it nearly impossible to hear contrasts from one to the next.

In any case, Williams sounded far more comfortable in these songs than he had in the Beethoven cycle. His tone was fuller and richer, chestnut in color with a shine in the top of his range and a hint of gravel at the bottom. He brought flashes of fire in his passionate declamation of “Keinen hat es noch gereut,” the first song in the set. 

Williams’s interpretations of the Brahms lieder showed more emotional range than he had in the Beethoven, as well. A note of longing came through in the subtle pressure in his voice at the start of “Sind es Schmerzen,” continuing on a journey through rapture and then bounding excitement. In his approach to the accompaniment, Drake did not show the spectacularly soft touch that many vocal pianists have, but his playing featured rich coloration and clear phrasing. He was especially transfixing in the breathing calm of “Liebe kam aus fernen Landen.” 

Williams brought a keen sense of shape to his gorgeous rendition of “Wie soll ich die Freude,” reflecting the swelling of his emotions in long, arching phrases and drawing a direct contrast to the tight, nimble turns of “Sulima.” For both baritone and pianist, the standout song of the evening was “Wie schnell verschwindet,” where Williams brought soft insistence to his singing while Drake channeled sublime sadness in the piano’s mournful contemplation.

The series continues 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13 at Kaufmann Concert Hall with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist Julius Drake performing Beethoven and Schumann.; 212-415-5500.

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