Lovers of lieder were in heaven on February 12 at the Longy School of Music. Martin Katz, who literally wrote the book (The Complete Collaborator) on collaborative piano performance, took time off from his busy schedule at Longy to prepare a delightful concert with the superb baritone Jesse Blumberg. In keeping with the Valentine theme, the songs were almost all about the trials and occasional joys of romantic love. Throughout the concert Katz and Blumberg performed as one, and Blumberg’s beautiful tone and excellent diction held me in thrall.
They opened with a heart-rending performance of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, a song cycle of longing. The poet is constantly reminded of a distant lover by the lonely beauty of the natural world, and the music and texts convey both the longing and the beauty.
The second set was Robert Schumann’s Leiderkreis, opus 24, a setting of poems by Heinrich Heine. The opus 24 is similar in theme to the better known Schumann setting of Heine’s Dichterliebe – that of a jilted lover inconsolably mourning his fate. But the lover is more bitter and the music is much darker in Leiderkreis than in Dichterliebe, which have more than a bit of humor in them, as if Goethe’s Werther was sung by Tom Lehrer. Opus 24 has some of that – but in both text and music the situation seems irredeemable. Bloomberg and Katz delivered an enormous range of emotion and dynamic – from pianissimos of despair to tremendous anger. Katz played with great brilliance, but never overpowered his singer.
The second half opened with the “Trois Ballades de Francois Villon” by Claude Debussy. In the first of these, the “Ballade de Villon a S’Amye,” once again the theme was the despair of the poet over a difficult and deceitful lover – yet one he seems unable to live without. The second was a prayer to the Virgin to forgive and bless the poet in spite of his sins, and the third a comic paean to the women of Paris. Bloomberg’s French was (if possible) even better than his German. Both he and Katz captured Debussy’s style – more restrained, muted, and subtle than the German works.
The concert ended with Excelsior: Before Love and Scripture, a work written for Blumberg and Katz by Tom Cipullo. Cipullo, inspired by both Bloomberg’s and his own recent marriages, set poems concerned with the power and complexity of romantic attraction: “Story of Us” (Gardner McFall); an excerpt from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking (Walt Whitman); “A Short History of the Rose (Lisle Mueller); “The Laughter of Women” (Lisle Mueller); and finally “Excelsior” (Walt Whitman). Cipullo explained that given the job of writing for a world-class pianist and singer, he was going to give them something really challenging. He did – and they rose to it. The work is both tonal and atonal, full of crashing fortes and nearly inaudible pianissimos, exploiting the full range of both the voice and the piano. But it works – particularly in expressing the text through the music. Cipullo explained that the work was based in part on the current conflicts about the meaning of marriage, and that he hoped if and when he hears it again — in twenty years or so — we will have moved beyond thinking that the right to marriage should be constrained. I hope I hear the piece again sooner than that.
The encore was a setting by Cipullo of Billy Collins’s poem Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House, about his neighbor’s dog continually barking. The poet unsuccessfully attempts to drown out the dog with Beethoven, so Cipullo builds the music with endless parodies of Beethoven themes, all the while letting the barking shine through. Collins and Heine both refuse to take themselves seriously. A great ending to a great concert.