To ask anything more of Christine Brewer’s debut with Boston’s Celebrity Series on Saturday, January 15, would seem almost impossible. Yet prior to the beginning of the program, the audience was notified that not only was Craig Terry substituting for an injured Craig Rutenberg as accompanist, but that an ailing Brewer would be substituting Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder for Alan Smith’s Vignettes. Regardless of viruses and absences, Saturday evening’s performance, a palette of works spanning eighteenth-century opera to cabaret, became an intimate exploration of human reaction to romantic and divine love.
The effective collaboration between Brewer and Terry blurred the lines between aria and bombast in the first work of the evening — “Divinitès du Styx” from Alceste; Gluck’s heroine hurls invective after desperate invective at the gods of the underworld for separating her from her husband. Although sometimes strained in its upper registers, on its surface, Brewer’s warm and well-rounded tone — a palpable presence in the space of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall —successfully delivered Gluck’s triumphal march. Yet the performance’s true achievement lay in Brewer’s sensitivity to the inner motives of the work; she expertly negotiated the philippics of Gluck’s aria with shockingly internalized poignant meditations on personal sacrifice.
Richard Wagner’s five Wesendonck Lieder and three works by Richard Strauss, Ich liebe dich, Breit’ über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar and Befreit, tossed the audience into the widening spirals of extended late-Romantic harmonies. Brewer’s pristine control over her considerable instrument and her signature voluminous sound were particularly gratifying in these works, though they were the least challenging of the evening. Terry’s significant contribution was tempering piano accompaniment that was more orchestral than solo instrument.
Four songs from Benjamin Britten’s cabaret settings of WH Auden’s poetry broke the gravity of late-Romantic lied with lighter fare, but only superficially: Brewer extracted the dark issues of vulnerability and bereavement from the playful, bawdy harmonies associated with cabaret. Beneath the obvious showmanship of the genre lay frenetic insecurity at the very core of the first song, Calypso; the pain of unrequited love of both Johnny and Tell me the truth about love that followed; and the inconsolable sorrow of loss in the final work of the set, Funeral Blues. Brewer’s illness perhaps was most evident here: many of these pieces seemed somehow fatigued and less polished than other works in the concert; in particular, Calypso, a rushed, quasi-spoken drama, lost much of the richness that graced Brewer’s performance throughout the evening. However, Brewer and Terry’s focus on the emotion of these complex works ensured a lasting impression.
John Carter’s Cantata is a setting of four African-American spirituals. Terry’s dignified prelude to the work tenuously, then confidently, integrated Brewer’s rhapsodic solo in Rondo (Peter go ring dem bells). In the service of Carter’s settings, Terry’s accompaniment remained purposefully cold and disassociated towards Brewer’s serene prayer in Recitative (Sometimes I feel like a motherless child); a disinterested chorale accompaniment greeted a devout call to worship in Air (Let us break bread together); a running bombast in the piano met the soloist’s exalted reverie in Toccata (Ride on King Jesus). These contrasts provided a moving vision of the personal faith at the very core of Carter’s work, posing the soloist as an individual unswayed by external calamities and conflicts. The concert concluded with Brewer’s personal collection of encores, Echoes of Nightingales, pieces performed by, and often written for, her musical idols.
Ultimately, Christine Brewer’s programming and performance made Saturday evening’s recital a success. She was able to dazzle with an awe-inspiring sound and acrobatic subtlety in her voice, and her collaboration with Terry, so clearly focused on interpreting, on understanding the inner psyche of these masterpieces, provided an intimate engagement with the audience, a rare feat.
A well-deserved standing ovation was met with a lone encore, Mira from Merrill’s Carnival! The simple, nostalgic melody, performed with such heart-felt earnestness, left audience members breathless and silent before erupting into one final round of applause.