The dazzling French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager performed a program of mostly unfamiliar lieder of Brahms and Liszt on November 11 in Jordan Hall. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, the duo seemed to adore being in each other’s glamorous company, both musically and sartorially. Thibaudet wore a dashing black suit and a white shirt with stand-up collar designed by Vivienne Westwood, his longtime British designer. Kirchschlager wore a dark pink satiny dress under a diaphanous top with golds, reds, silvers, and greens. Her long brown ringlets were tossed around, but underneath all her charm and beauty was a mezzo voice at the service of a serious intelligence and musical sensitivity.
Thibaudet has enjoyed the partnerships with other charismatic women with gorgeous voices — Reneé Fleming (their “Night Songs” is magical) and Cecilia Bartoli come to mind — and after hearing him with Kirchschlager, I completely understand why these female superstars love to partner with him. He’s able to do whatever they like, and has the musical wits to know exactly what he likes and thinks each song should sound like.
The Celebrity Series of Boston should rethink their policy of not supplying program notes. With the exception of the first four songs by Brahms, there were no opus numbers or information on the other eight Brahms songs, and nothing about the seven Liszt songs. Also, the songs mentioned no poets, just the translators. It’s good, but expected, to have the texts in well-translated German and English (many by Emily Ezust, one by Paul Hindemith(!), “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome”).
Jordan Hall was about half full, whereas when Thibaudet plays solo, there is usually a big crowd. (This is his first appearance in Boston since his trifecta of Ravel performances at Tanglewood last summer). Perhaps this is because Kirchschlager’s career is mostly in Europe, and few Bostonians knew of her. They should. By the end of this concert, she had easily won over the whole audience.
The recital’s program focused more on vocal numbers than on piano solos, which were relegated to famous pieces by Brahms and Liszt to give the singer a breather. Had he desired, Thibaudet could have spent his career simply being the one of the best vocal partner in the business. Lieder of Brahms and Liszt are quite technically challenging, but Thibaudet played as if he were born playing them. The first four Brahms pieces, taken from the “Deutsche Volkslieder,” a set of twenty-eight songs for solo voice and piano composed in 1856, are full of yearning and sadness of parting. The last of these,”Feinsliebchen, du sollst” is a rollicking allegro with a romantic dialogue between a rich man and an honorable poor girl, with lots of la la la las between each verse- until she gets his gold ring. Kirchschlager sang it with easy charm.
She is not a singer who immediately knocks you over. Her delivery is unfussy, hands and head quite still. It’s her beautiful voice that eventually wows you with its perfectly pitched high notes, her dusky low notes, and her keen sensitivity to the text (which was, of course, in her native language). Before I knew it, she and Thibaudet had me spellbound.
Near the halfway point of the Brahms, Thibaudet played Opus 118, #2 in A Major, one of the most ravishing of all the Brahms intermezzi. (Musicologist Jan Swafford posits that all twenty of Brahms Opuses 116-119, of 1892-3, were love songs to the many lost women in his life). As four people I know consider this their favorite Brahms piece (I spent much of last year learning it on the harp), there must have been many in the audience who love it as well. Oddly, although Thibaudet accompanied the Brahms lieder absolutely beautifully, I was unmoved by his performance. It somehow felt stiff and unimaginative.
Eight Brahms songs followed, all in some way about love and loss (“Life and love — how they flew by!” “Über die Heide” ends — oh Romantic misery!) “Meine Liebe ist grün” (“My love is as green”) was a Christmas present to Clara Schumann, a passionate setting of her son Felix’s lyrics, something the composer did again in his setting of Felix’s “Wenn um den Holunder.” “Nachtwandler” (“Night Wanderer”) received a spectacular performance from Kirchslager, vocally and dramatically. While not seeming to be about love, its lyrics warn to leave the wanderer to his painful yearning (“sein schmerzliches Verlangen.”) The dramatic “Von Ewiger Liebe” (“Of Eternal Love”) dating from 1864, from a folk text (“Iron and steel can be recast by the smith, But who would transform our love?”), has the singer (a maiden) bursting into passion, loudly declaring that their love will have to last forever! Not in Lieder World.
Brahms once said in awe of Liszt, “Whoever has not heard of Liszt cannot even speak of piano playing.” Even in this wall-to-wall Liszt year, but there have been few vocal recitals with so much Liszt (not counting Matthew Polenzani and Julius Drake). After hearing these seven, I couldn’t understand why. Thibaudet played another Liszt crowd pleaser, “Consolation #3, and this time, he played wonderfully, with a perfectly calibrated touch.
Some of Liszt’s songs are still only in manuscript; others exist in four versions. The foremost authority on the songs, Rene Meuller, puts the number at eighty-seven for voice and piano and fourteen for voice and orchestra. Liszt wrote Lieder throughout his life, and on the basis of the ones Kirchschlager sang, I would have loved to have heard more. A very short song, with simple broken chords in the piano, “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,” grows more agitated then eerily warns, “soon you will rest as well,” with simple chords again. “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” featured another dramatic piano part and a dramatic vocal part as well, “Poisoned are my songs. How could it be otherwise? You have poured poison Into my blossoming life.” Kirchschlager was in gorgeous, often operatic voice throughout the Liszt as she was during the two encores, the second of which was a Brahms lullaby her mother had sung to her. A perfect, calm ending to a recital featuring so much Stürm und Drang.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.