Yesterday afternoon at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Director of Music Eric Choate arranged to host a vocal recital by soprano Winnie Nieh, accompanied at the piano by Paul Dab. Choate has been producing a monthly series of Candlelight Concerts at 7 p.m. on Saturdays; so yesterday’s performance amounted to a “bonus” offering. Choate himself was a beneficiary of that bonus, since one of his own compositions was performed.
His music was included in Nieh’s highly imaginative opening for her recital, a “program within a program” entitled The Art of Song. The idea was to present poems whose texts had been set by multiple composers. She began with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Die Liebende schreibt” (the woman in love writes), set by Franz Schubert (D. 673), Johannes Brahms (Opus 47, Number 5), and Felix Mendelssohn (Op. post. 86, Number 3). This was followed by Emanuel von Geibel’s “Die Liebe saß als Nachtigall” (love perched as a nightingale), set by Richard Strauss (composed in 1879, predating his first published collection of songs) and Clara Schumann (Opus 13, Number 3). All of these songs were composed over the course of the full breadth of the nineteenth century. The final poem shifted to the French language and the twentieth-century poet Paul Valéry. “La ceinture” (the waistband) was taken from Valéry’s second (1922) publication Charmes (as in the Latin for “songs”). This is the poem that Choate set, preceded by the setting by Hungarian composer and cellist Paul Hermann, one of the “disappeared” victims of World War II.
This all made for an engaging approach to the art song repertoire. The selections also provided a chance to compare the stricter structure of Goethe’s sonnet (and how different composers approached that structure) with Valéry’s freer rhetoric, which still respects a strict rhyme scheme. Most important is how each of the composers established his/her own voice through the music, and Choate’s efforts reminded us that new voices are always rising with new perspectives.
The final “French pairing” was followed by a more extended French selection, the song cycle Fiançailles pour rire (whimsical betrothal) by Francis Poulenc, setting texts by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin. Poulenc was clearly taken by Vilmorin’s arch view of societal conventions, disclosed through a somewhat perverse command of wit that would probably put her in the same league as Edith Sitwell. Poulenc served up an almost serene delivery even when the words go decidedly over the top, the one exception being a rapid-fire account of a poem that pushes the ambiguous meaning of “vole” as either “flight” or “theft.” Nieh’s command of French did not always capture Vilmorin’s subtle shapes; but her delivery of Poulenc’s music was clear enough to allow the texts to register with the necessary off-beat impact.
For the second half of the program, Nieh turned entirely to English texts, again from two different centuries. She began in the seventeenth century with “The blessed Virgin’s expostulation,” which Henry Purcell published in his Harmonia Sacra collection. Purcell set a text by Nahum Tate, relating an episode from The Gospel According to Luke in which the twelve-year-old Jesus disappears. Tate’s poem is a monologue delivered by a distraught Mary, which Purcell set as if it were an operatic monodrama. This piece was thoroughly in Nieh’s comfort zone, which involved both her solid command of English (both text and rhetoric) and her ability to delivery operatic expressiveness in an intimate setting.
She was equally an home in concluding her recital with Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs cycle. With texts based on “monastic marginalia,” Barber’s ten songs manage to fill a broad canvas of both the sacred (one of the most intense accounts of the Crucifixion, confined to only nine lines of text) and the secular (a wry comment of promiscuity that says everything in only two lines). Then, of course, there is “The monk and his cat,” in which the cat walks across the piano keyboard leaving a trail of small tone clusters. Nieh was clearly comfortable with the full breadth of emotional dispositions accounted for in this cycle, and her delivery made for a first-rate conclusion to a stimulating afternoon.