Graham, Martineau illuminate with creative approach to Schumann cycle

Wed Feb 05, 2020 at 12:59 pm
Susan Graham performed a recital with pianist Malcolm Martineau Tuedsay night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: B. Ealovega

Not many performers—even the most creative among them— would  have the confidence to break up an iconic song cycle and present it piecemeal over the course of a recital, as Susan Graham did Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. 

In an energetic curtain speech, Graham gave her pianist, Malcolm Martineau, credit for the concept: the two presented Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben not as one item out of several on the program but as the guiding frame for their entire performance. Divided into eight “chapters,” each of Schumann’s songs was presented alongside a handful of songs by other composers on the same theme.

The result was a colorful program that drew from a variety of composers and styles. The Schumann lieder, in fact, largely felt overshadowed by the other selections, serving not so much as a focal point but rather as a springboard for a lively recital.

The evening began with a set about love at first sight, constructed around “Seit ich hn gesehen.” “Møte,” from Edvard Grieg’s Haugtussa, stood out here, as Graham showed off the smoky side of her voice, opening up its coyly seductive melody into bright passion over the swirling chords of the piano.

A shapely rendition of “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” was followed by “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” in a jazzy setting by John Dankworth. Graham’s best qualities were on display here: a perfectly clear, precisely intentioned handling of the text, and phrasing that luxuriated in the rich tartness of Dankworth’s tonality. Martineau’s handling of the accompaniment exuded easy charm.

Graham brought vivid character to “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben,” delivering its final stanza in a near whisper. She struggled to achieve the crisp diction and burning color necessary for the handful of Spanish songs on the program, but still managed a haunting delivery in the second verse of Joaquín Turina’s “Los dos miedos.”

A quickness in Graham’s voice captured the nervous excitement of “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern,” complemented by a bewitching performance of Schumann’s own “Lass mich ihm Busen hangen,” the second Lied der Braut from Myrten. This brief romance showed off a warm glow in her middle range, along with her most exquisite phrasing.

A sensual set built around “Süsser Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an” started with a passionate rendition of Duparc’s “Phidylé,” building to ecstasy from sublime calm. Graham brought energetic charm to the prickly writing of Poulenc’s “Le Carafon,” the first in a set of songs for children around “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust.” Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby Op. 16, No. 1 showed the full weight and dark color of her voice, though it felt oddly robust for a bedtime song.

The program closed, as Schumann’s cycle does, on a note of longing and loss. Roger Quilter’s setting of “How should I your true love know” was one of the standout items of the evening. Graham delivered the haunting melody with unsettling purity, while Martineau brought breadth and grace to the spare accompaniment. Finishing the program with the last song of Schumann’s cycle, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,” Graham brought hard-edged grief, treating the first lines of the text as accusation more than lamentation. Martineau’s playing glowed in the piano’s long, dreaming conclusion.

For an encore, Graham offered what she called the “ninth chapter,” a soft, warm rendition of “Hello, Young Lovers,” Anna’s bittersweet reminiscence from The King and I. Then, taking Martineau’s spot on the bench, she showed surprising confidence at the keyboard as she led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to her accompanist.

This might not be the way one would choose to experience Frauenliebe und -leben every time. The unusual presentation meant that we couldn’t hear the natural progression of the cycle, even if the additional songs dealt in similar emotions. But for one night at least, this was an inventive way to build an eclectic and enchanting recital.

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