“Art Songs New and Old” more than aptly described a two-man show at the Berklee College of Music’s David Friend Recital Hall on Thursday evening, September 15. In both surprising and not so surprising ways, baritone Philip Lima, along with composer and pianist Larry Bell, premiered the latter’s song cycle, Revels Also included were the more rarely heard Chansons de Don Quichotte of Jacques Ibert, settings of Ronsard, and the still-ever-so-popular Old American Songs of Aaron Copland.
Revels, to words of Ben Jonson, a contemporary — or as more than a few have pointed out, a competitor — of Shakespeare, is the second song cycle written by Bell for Lima, who pointed out that these four-century-old texts sound modern-day. Bell, who serves on the Berklee faculty, crafted settings to the ten Jonson poems. There were moments of freshness in the tonal canvas Bell brought to his songs. His revivifying salon harmonies of yesteryear would come unexpectedly, fleetingly. Beneath his conservatism lies a welcome refreshing unpretentiousness.
Lima’s brief introduction to the Ibert chansons referred to the 1933 film of G.W. Pabst, for which the four songs were written. The film featured the great and controversial Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. Do any of us remember him? Lima queried. (By the way, you can catch the final scene, the death scene, on YouTube with Chaliapin singing Chanson de la Mort). Contrary to the scratchy soundtrack and Chaliapin’s freer approach — he was known for creating his own interpretations — Lima sounded clear as a bell (no pun intended) in the small recital hall, taking fewer liberties, remaining faithful to the indications in the score.
Outright emoting seems to be the key for Chaliapin; that was stylistic of the times. By contrast, Lima invoked a beautified if somewhat removed feeling, more characteristic and expressive of our time. “Ne pleure pas Sancho, mon bon, Ton maître n’est pas mort, Il vit dans une ile heureuse”—“Don’t cry Sancho, my good man, your master is not dead, he lives on a happy island.” Lima, while not directly touching our hearts, did create an aura that could be sensed, more than felt, a feeling just beyond our physical grasp, yet one was most satisfying.
Bell’s toned-down accompaniment, perhaps a result of the dryness of the hall, the smaller Steinway, or a strict adherence to Ibert’s written directions covering volume and articulation, fell obviously short of supporting Lima’s voice and the sensation he conveyed throughout the little suite of songs. In particular, Spanish allusions to Flamenco style in Ibert’s piano writing were not fully realized in this performance.
The very best of the show were six of the Old American Songs; Lima and Bell rejuvenated each one of them. It is hard to choose one over another, given Copland’s ingenious, timeless settings and the Lima-Bell duo’s absolutely right and most wondrous take on them. I fell in love all over again with these mainstays of art song.
“Yes the candidate’s a dodger…He’ll meet you and treat you/And ask you for your vote/But look out boys/He’s a-dodgin’ for your note.” This and other little verses took on all sorts of interesting poses both vocally and stagewise. Each time the refrain, “Yes we’re all dodgin’/A-dodgin’, dodgin’, dodgin’…” came around, it did so with a wonderfully animated punch. Gracefulness in power and a kind of purity marked Lima’s delivery that, in turn, was matched by Bell’s compelling incisiveness and vigor. Lima’s diction also made a huge difference in the way we listened, not only to The Dodger and the other Copland songs, but as well to Ronsard’s Quichotte poésie and to Ben Jonson’s English texts.