For thematic programming to work it is not enough for artists to assert a theme. They must also construct a program around works that have real connections. In the case of the recital of oboist Gerard Reuter and pianist Gayle Martin Henry, the title of the March 21 program for Pro Musicis at Longy was “Songs Without Words.” And yes, the oboe sang and so did the piano, and not a word was to be heard except for the somewhat prolix introductions that the artists tendered before every piece. The stories the performers told were virtually all about death: The composer Pasculli died just after composing his cheerful virtuoso arrangement of Donzetti; Senta threw herself into the ocean after some stormy octave tremolos in the Flying Dutchman transcription; Isolde expired from excessive rubato in the Tristan und Isolde transcription; and the composer, Sinigagli, had a fatal heart attack and “transitioned” just as the Gestapo came to collect him in 1940’s Italy, but not before composing a smashing virtuoso showpiece for the oboe.
Reuter’s poetic, grandiloquent phrasing and facile ornamentation would have been the envy of any bel canto diva. The human voice is incapable of singing a phrase in one breath even half as long as some of Reuter’s. And this was not a stunt — it was a way of extending phrases into long lines of architecture which this listener found monumental. Also very communicative was the way in which Reuter outlined phrases with his entire body as though he was in a Diagliev company. Henry’s stage demeanor was a bit reserved and deferential when she was accompanying Reuter, but she came into her own in the two Wagner/Liszt transcriptions and gave some pretty impressive licks.
My chief objection to the program came from the way it was organized, probably as a consequence of the oboist’s need for a fair amount of rest after each extended utterance. The resulting alternations between duets and piano solos could have worked better if there had been any discernable relationships. This listener can remember a very effective recital with D’Anna Fortunato and David Deveau in which Liszt and Schubert songs and their solo piano arrangements were contrasted. This journal reviewed another highly successful example of songs without words — a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise in which a saxophone replaced the singer. This writer could hear every word the saxophone “sang” and could even tell that he was playing in German. (That review is here.)
The evening began with a duo arrangement of Beethoven’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” featuring beautiful, long elegant phrasing, spirited piano accompaniment and playful tossing of themes back and forth. The first movement of a Clementi piano sonata followed— included because Mozart may have borrowed from it for the overture to the Magic Flute. Henry’s playing was lively, clear articulate, and with a propulsive drive, though not any discernable rubato.
Mr. Reuter then returned with a workmanlike set of variations on Heidenröslein by the Italian, Leone Singaglia. Reuter’s sinuous phrases and demonstrative song selling were nevertheless inadequate to efface my memories of a much better example of such writing, Schubert’s Variation’s on Trockne Blumen. Then Ms. Henry took the stage for a couple of Liszt transcriptions of Schuman songs, including the famous Widmung, which was beautifully voiced but lacking in drama and surprise .
After intermission the artists offered a rendition of a couple of Sondheim songs which were followed, if you can believe it, by an unmatched pair of Wagner/Liszt transcriptions. It was a jarring juxtaposition—Sondheim’s cotton candy followed by Wagner’s mayhem and madness, but Ms. Henry made the most of the latter. Alternatingly growling and lyrical, she masterfully painted the scenes of Senta’s demise and Isolde’s love death with a technique seemingly untaxed by the technical demands.
The evening ended with another virtuoso transcription, this time of airs from Donizetti’s La Favorita by one Antonio Pascuilli. Mr. Reuter’s soulful performance was so frenetic, committed, and intense, that one worried that there might be a love death parallel to Isolde’s. Rachmaninoff got the last word through a reflectively poignant and calming encore of Vocalise.
During the reception I asked the pianist how this program had been built. She told me that she had a partial recital of Liszt opera and song transcriptions which she asked Gerald Reuter to fill out with some other arrangements of vocal music. That’s not enough to make a coherent program where the value of the sum exceeds its parts.