On November 14, a chilly and gloomy afternoon, a fortunate audience at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum enjoyed some at least figurative warmth and light at a recital by soprano Jeanine De Bique and pianist Warren Jones. De Bique, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, won the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and already has an impressive résumé of opera roles and recital appearances, while Jones is one of the world’s most sought-after collaborative pianists.
The pair took a relatively straightforward approach to Maurice Ravel’s Five Popular Greek Melodies, which are fundamentally folk songs, however artfully arranged by Ravel. Although there is an edition using the modern Greek texts, these performers opted for the more traditional (and more widely understood) French. There was the occasional pleasurable lingering on a key word of text or an especially delicious melodic turn, but more often this performance emphasized the simple origins of these songs. For this listener the high point (though one could cite a goodly number of them) was “The Song of the Girls Collecting Mastic.” In this sensual, even erotic, comparison of a beautiful young man to a blond angel, De Bique’s sovereign vocal control gave us some luscious rises and falls and allowed her sometimes to begin a note without vibrato and then gently bring it in. The freedom of the arrangement blurring the sense of meter and Jones’s moist piano textures gave one the timeless sensation of a dream. It was a moment of enchantment that one wished didn‘t have to end.
A group of Hugo Wolf lieder followed, spanning a wide range of moods. It opened with a little-known but marvelous Goethe setting from Faust, Gretchen Before the Image of the Mother of Sorrows, in which Gretchen appeals in direst distress to the Mater Dolorosa for empathy and assistance. This was a virtual operatic aria with frequent shifts of mood via tempo and dynamics. The advantage of piano versus orchestral accompaniment here is the greater degree of flexibility and spontaneity that Jones, as a single player, allowed De Bique. The piano part is nonetheless orchestrally conceived and was vital in helping De Bique alternate convincingly between pain-racked misery and numbness. The rest of the group was equally vividly realized: the delicate, feminine charm of Spring Throughout the Year and Flower-Greeting; the frozen starkness of The Abandoned Maiden; the desire and seductiveness of If You Wish to See Your Beloved Dying of Love; and the explosion of exhilaration of It’s Spring.
Wolfgang Amadé Mozart’s concert aria Misera, dove son, K. 369, “Oh, misery, where am I?” opened with a ravishing messa di voce from De Bique. Even in the midst of misery and disorientation, the character Fulvia manages to sound gorgeous, in true classical-period opera style. In the lengthy recitative she wonders whether she is in Rome or Greece, remembers her father’s treachery, and envisions her innocent, imprisoned husband. The piece gradually catches fire, dramatically speaking, in the aria itself, so it was a pity that its text and translation were somehow omitted from the program. De Bique and Jones were ever responsive to Fulvia’s subtly increasing agitation, culminating in her asking heaven to strike her with a thunderbolt — to no avail.
Spanish composer Fernando Obradors, though he did compose in larger forms, owes his fame almost entirely to his song arrangements, five of which we heard here. The first was Cradle Song, a nurse’s honeyed threat to a child: “if you don’t go to sleep I’ll call the Boogeyman.” It was rendered with such tender affection that one wouldn’t be aware of the underlying threat without knowing the text (unlike the related song in Benjamin Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies, which is pure menace in text and music). Also particularly notable was the luscious Of the Softest Hair, smooth as satin in De Bique’s hands and finishing with a gorgeously floated pianissimo. The set finished with Tiny Is the Bride that exploits the incongruity of a slyly amusing text (“Tiny is the bride, tiny is the groom . . .”) alternating with a great tour-de-force display in both the piano and vocal parts. The performance was appropriately jaw-dropping.
The program concluded with six spirituals in memorable arrangements by Hall Johnson, H. Leslie Adams*, H. T. Burleigh, and Jacqueline Hairtson. De Bique delivered these with a natural, clear diction, avoiding the prissy, classically-trained over-enunciation that can mar some singers’ spirituals. The first was His Name So Sweet in Johnson’s playful version, and both performers clearly had fun with it. A Balm in Gilead, in Johnson’s arrangement, lived up to its name in De Bique‘s singing, inspiring a bass in the audience to hum along. (In fact, before beginning the group De Bique had invited the audience to participate in whatever manner they felt inspired to do.) Prayer, in the subtly jazz-colored Adams arrangement, was a moving plea for direction from a soul who has lost it. In the show-stopping closer, Ain’t-a That Good News, the inventive arranger Hairtson fully embraced jazz in both harmonies and swinging syncopations. De Bique and Jones brought down the house with it.
There were two more spirituals for encores. Ride On, King Jesus, had an unorthodox but very effective arrangement: the piano evoked a powerful locomotive, emphasizing “no man can a-hinder thee.” And finally, This Little Light of Mine was sung a cappella with luminous expressivity. Jones also addressed the audience, pointing out that though De Bique has studied and coached with him for some six years, this was their first public performance. I hope and trust it was the first of a great many.