in: Reviews

September 1, 2011

Wolf and an Improbable, Before the Storm

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Last weekend’s Maverick Concert schedule was curtailed by the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Irene, which caused the Sunday afternoon concert by the Shanghai Quartet to be postponed two weeks. However, despite mild rain, Saturday night’s program went on as scheduled.

Too bad you weren’t there. That is, it’s almost certain you weren’t, since the audience was the smallest of the season so far, for one of the most worthwhile and valuable programs of the year.

August Stradal (1860-1930) is a new name to me. He studied piano with Liszt and Leschetizky and also, at the Vienna Conservatory, with Anton Bruckner. He arranged at least five of Bruckner’s symphonies for solo piano and left behind a raft of other arrangements of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Buxtehude and others. The list I saw of Stradal’s Bruckner arrangements didn’t include the Seventh Symphony, but pianist Babette Hierholzer opened Saturday’s program with the Adagio from that work. Maybe it’s all Stradal arranged from the Seventh. I wouldn’t have thought that much of Bruckner’s quality would survive a solo piano arrangement. But Stradal’s transcription, and Hierholzer’s playing, focused attention on the harmonies of the music in an illuminating way. Hierholzer produced a very beautiful, singing tone, with remarkable legato octaves, and chose a tempo that would have sounded reasonable in an orchestral performance. In short, a surprisingly convincing experience.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to Wolf’s Italienische Liederbuch, all of it, Book 1 before intermission, Book 2 after. Maverick’s production gave us an excellent opportunity to appreciate this masterful collection. The program included complete German and English texts (in an excellent translation by Donna Baraket), printed in large enough type to be legible in dim light. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy and baritone Philip Cutlip gave a great deal of life to the music, as did Hierholzer, who assumed her proper role as an active collaborator rather than a deferring accompanist.

The one problem I felt with this performance was Cutlip’s vocal power. Maverick isn’t a very large hall (about 200 seats indoors), and when Cutlip let loose with his stentorian qualities he overwhelmed the music and my ears. He could be straightforward and subtle, as he was in the very first song and in many of the following songs. But starting with No. 3, there were numerous instances of vocal excess, which detracted from the intimacy of the performance despite his lovely soft moments (as in the same song.) Lundy has more power than we heard from her on Saturday, but she had better restraint and never made me wince – as sopranos certainly can do when they want to. Both singers acted out their songs, and sometimes reacted to each others’ acting, leaving me bobbing my head up and down as I tried to watch them and read the texts at the same time. This is a tribute, by the way, not a complaint.

Cutlip’s enthusiasm didn’t spoil the experience, even of his own artistry. This collection, Wolf’s last, is a miracle of compression, often leaving strong impressions with songs that last under a minute. (The total time for all forty-six songs was just about seventy-five minutes.) The individual songs, all on texts which deal with love in one way or another, range from truly frightening to outrageously funny, an amazing gamut which this performance offered intact. In Wolf’s frequent postludes, Hierholzer created her own minute worlds of expression, while strongly reinforcing what the singers were doing when they were active. Responding to the small but enthusiastic audience, the singers finally offered us a duet: “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beautifully sung and convincingly acted.

It was a memorable evening. Too bad you, and most of the regular Maverick audience, weren’t there.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

 

 

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