Sly and Majeski open the door to Wolf at 92Y

Thu Feb 20, 2020 at 1:27 pm
Amanda Majeski, Phillipe Sly and Julius Drake presented a vocal program Wednesday night at 92Y.

The 92nd Street Y is observing the Beethoven anniversary by beginning every installment of its first-ever song recital series with An die ferne Geliebte. There’s a certain harmony in the conceit, as Beethoven’s relatively brief song cycle is generally considered the first example of the form; yet the repetition also runs the risk of casting the work as mere prelude to whatever follows, particularly for anyone who attends more than one performance in the series.

Even so, Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly gave a convincing performance of the cycle to lead off his joint recital with American soprano Amanda Majeski at the Jewish Museum on Wednesday. Even in a rather dry hall, his voice had a warmth like a woolen blanket and his singing was nuanced, intelligent, and full of feeling. Some of Sly’s choices were a little precious, causing him to lose the end of a phrase here and there, but mostly this was a performance that conveyed emotion without overstating it: he brought calm grace to “Es kehret der Maien,” showing keen longing in the way he pulled at the top of a line. Julius Drake, who curated the series and is accompanying all of its performances, sounded uncharacteristically clumsy here, with rolled chords and arpeggios coming out in awkward handfuls.

Hugo Wolf’s four songs for Mignon from the Goethe-Lieder were a late addition to the program, presumably to even the balance between halves and between singers. They proved to be a worthwhile inclusion, even if it did mean the concert ran to nearly two-and-a-half hours. Majeski was a little uncertain at first: the hall was not so kind to her voice as to Sly’s, and her molasses-dark soprano sounded weary and unfocused. She found her grounding in the quiet vein of “Mignon” number three, and her reading of “Kennst du das Land” was gorgeous. In this iconic lied she boasted fiery focus at her top, as well as a rich, meaty chest voice that could reach down for the lowest phrases without losing any power. Drake, too, excelled here, offering an expansive, breathing introduction, and spinning torrents of passion during the refrains.

The main item of the evening was the Italienisches Liederbuch, a rare chance to hear Wolf’s brilliant gift for melodic invention and characterization at extended length. 

Majeski and Sly observed the convention of splitting up the songs, creating two separate characters and even adding some light choreography to underscore their narrative conceit. Majeski’s best singing came and went, as in the “Mignon” lieder, showing hints of amber warmth in the first song, “Auch klein Dinge,” but struggling to maintain it later on. That initial drawn, weary quality surfaced in much of her soft singing, where she lost the tight focus of her vibrato, though she compensated with rich expression, crafting her phrases with expert precision.

Majeski was at her best when channeling a more direct, assertive energy: the biting wit of her delivery in “Du denkst mit einem Fädchen mich zu fangen” focused her tone into a piercing light. More of that tartness came through in “Mein Liebster ist so klein,” as she leaned into the hard edge of her voice, savoring the mischief of the text. 

Sly was no less brilliant in Wolf than he was in Beethoven, succeeding in a variety of colors and modes throughout the cycle. He let out the full, crackling darkness of his voice in his forceful delivery of “Ich liess mir sagen,” a stark difference from the almost lounge-like smoothness of “Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen,” where he stilled his vibrato to lend his voice an extra shine. The very next song, “Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen,” showed both qualities in contrast, as his forthright passion yielded to soft yearning. From beginning to end, Sly demonstrated a deep connection to the text through specific choices of diction.

About halfway through, Sly broke character and let on that he was starting to feel sick but was determined to finish the cycle. For the most part he managed to work through the illness: in “Der Mond hat eine schwere Klag erhoben” he still showed an astonishing soft voice, maintaining a consistent tone with a warm haze and a texture like cashmere. In more assertive songs he did have to make some adjustments to save his voice, but Drake cut him little slack. It’s hard to begrudge anyone wanting to fill out the rich contours of Wolf’s piano writing, yet as the bass-baritone struggled for volume, Drake more than once covered him so completely that he had to stop singing altogether.

On the whole, though, this was an enchanting performance of a distinctive work, made especially so by the interplay between the two singers and their characters. Sly’s pining troubadour song “Nicht länger kann ich singen” earned a sharp rebuke in Majeski’s “Schweig einmal still,” in turn evoking sad longing in the bass-baritone’s “O wüsstest du.” Their ordering of the songs set up a delightful back-and-forth that brought out the lively spirit of Wolf’s writing.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS