In many carefully constructed, ingenious concert programs as well as numerous fine recordings, New York Festival of Song co-founders/pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier and a variety of outstanding singers have entertained and educated audiences about song literature. Most recently, partnering with soprano Janai Brugger and baritone John Brancy, they presented “Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna” on Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Here was fertile ground in a variety of fields: psychoanalysis, sociology, history and, of course, music. Blier’s program notes, printed and spoken, were edifying as well as entertaining. The opening songs, under the heading “A Famous Patient and His Wife,” were by Gustav and Alma Mahler—Alma having persuaded her husband to consult Dr. Freud. Gustav’s Recollection was the perfect song in this context as its text—about repressed memories of a lost love being awoken by song—might have been the composer’s words to the psychoanalyst. Though not Mahler’s intention, the use of both singers created a scena in which Gustav and Alma relive a time when they were genuinely in love. It was a daring move to open a recital with so much angst, but the beauty and naked vulnerability of the singing and Blier’s playing were hard to resist. Fortunately, Alma’s contribution contrasted, “A Mild Summer Night,” an account of a soul finding its (apparent) soulmate—before any disillusionment. Brancy and Blier gave a starry-eyed account, now passionately surging, now tenderly dreamy.
“Eros and Thanatos”—Love (Sex) and Death—described the next song-set, first of three covering familiar Freudian tropes. Hugo Wolf’s “Cover Me With Flowers” encompassed both ideas: “Strew flowers over me, I am dying of love . . .” The sustained rapture of Brugger’s singing was supported by the rich, golden harmonies of Barrett’s accompaniment. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “The Genius” refers to the object of a young man’s desire; Brancy amusingly portrayed the man with a blustery flirting technique, blissfully unaware that his inamorata is far his intellectual superior. In “A Young Girl’s First Love Song,” by Wolf, the title character likens falling in love to a venomous snake’s bite, except love is both misery and joy. Brugger very effectively portrayed the girl’s delirium, further enhanced by Barrett’s aptly manic playing. Something like a male version of this was supplied by Arnold Schoenberg’s “Fears of a Man,” yet Brancy also introduced a note of wonder as the man trembles before the “helpless woman.” Richard Strauss’s “Spring Celebration,” far from a nice folk festival, depicts a crazed, all-female cult of Adonis who, having seen their idol’s lifeless, bleeding body, run through the night forest sobbing, laughing, screaming. (Strauss, incidentally, dedicated this song “to my dear mother”: calling all Freudians!) Naturally, this is a spectacular song with a Valkyrie-esque vocal part and a huge, orchestral piano accompaniment. With nuanced control over an immense dynamic range, Brugger and Barrett created electrifying waves of sound in the outer sections but also plenty of pathos in the calmer middle. The set ended with a much more serene nocturne in Wolf’s “Night’s Magic” which mesmerizes the listener with the piano’s murmuring 16th-notes through the entire song. Brancy and Barrett employed a variegated range of colors even within a small range of dynamics seldom above mezzo piano. At the end, as Death welcomes those fatally wounded by love, Brancy’s honeyed tone made the pull powerfully seductive.
The next group, called “The Interpretation of Dreams,” commenced with a long-buried treasure, “When All Day’s Miseries” by Alexander Zemlinsky, sometime teacher to Alma Schindler (later Alma Mahler), Schoenberg, and Korngold, as well as brother-in-law to Schoenberg. The song was ravishing, with Blier’s crystalline piano chords (representing “tears of dew” or the night sky’s “star-candles” or both), the comforting rocking rhythm offsetting a pessimistic text, and the long vocal lines sung so expressively by Brancy.
Before Zemlinsky’s student Schoenberg pushed beyond tonality, he enjoyed pushing the limits of public propriety in some of his eight cabaret songs, particularly “The Easily Satisfied Lover.” Its gist is: I have a shiny bald head while my girlfriend has a black pussycat she dotes on, but what she loves best is my slipping her velvet-furred cat onto my shiny bald head. In a Victor/Victoria set-up, Brugger relished portraying the man portraying his girlfriend, cooing and using frequent rubato, one moment inviting, the next withholding. Blier maintained flawless ensemble with the coquettish soprano and evoked the cat’s purring with his gentle left-hand trills.
Blier then called attention to the year Zemlinsky set “The Little Hunchbacked Man”—1934—a time when the Nazis were arrogating new powers to themselves and Jews began to feel distinctly “in the way.” As the Jewish Zemlinsky likely intended, in this context the Knaben Wunderhorn poem, seemingly, takes on the veneer of racist propaganda—until . . . Amid craggy, dissonant music utterly unlike the earlier Zemlinsky song, Brancy and Blier made us feel the mounting annoyance of the young woman narrator who finds herself impeded at every chore by the little hunchback. Near the end, the woman gets on her knees to pray, and the hunchback speaks for the first time—not in the expected grotesque, Alberich-voice but sincerely pleading in the third person: “Dear child, I beg of you, pray for the little hunchbacked man too!” Brancy rendered this with childlike innocence, accompanied by the now sweetly diatonic piano part, and in a flash this listener’s sympathies turned 180 degrees.
The following set was “Fathers,” deceased ones in this case. Korngold’s “The Hero’s Grave on the Pruth” speaks of a little garden, dew-drops, day-dreaming, flowers, and birds, only locating the hero’s grave there in the last line. Brancy, as the hero’s presumed progeny, took a quite unexpected approach, singing out, often heroically. While this might not be my approach, taken on its own terms, one could yet admire the amplitude and beauty of Brancy’s baritone. Barrett’s piano interludes were full of mysterious rustlings and birdsong.
Blier stated that Strauss’s three Ophelia-Lieder were the genesis of the entire program and that the composer’s portrait of the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is so detailed one could almost make a diagnosis of her psychopathology. The young woman’s anomie was clear from the start: the languid, obsessively repeated piano figure adrift from tonality echoed (in augmentation) by the singer. Brugger used a colorless straight tone here to show a pitiable creature divorced from reality. Only in Ophelia’s infrequent emotional outbursts did the singer “let the voice out.” In violent contrast to the others, the middle song is relentless manic energy; yet even in this frenzy Brugger managed to highlight with moral indignation some key phrases, railing against men’s sexual ownership of women. The final song is ostensibly a lament for Ophelia’s father, Polonius, whose recent death shattered her sanity, but Strauss’s many harmonic non sequiturs and a demented Viennese waltz that interrupts twice show her to be at least as disconnected as before. At the very end Brugger gave her perhaps a final flash of sanity, offering a prayer bathed in rich Straussian harmonies; Brugger’s simple delivery of “Gott sei mit euch” (“God be wi’ ye”), in the warm glow of E-flat major, was heartbreaking as one could tell it was farewell forever.
“Afterglow” was the final set, opening with Wolf’s “In the Spring” which at first seems be standard poet-communing-with nature. But soon enough, for all the song’s beauty, one perceived the unfulfilled search for peace; Brancy and Blier infused the song with yearning, phrases continually rising and falling like swells on the sea. At the end (“What are you weaving into memory . . .?—Old, unnameable days!”) we learn, with darkened tone from both performers, of painful memories needing resolution.
In Blier’s characterization, Strauss’s enraptured “I See as if in a Mirror” was the most nearly neurosis-free work on the program, leaving listeners to revel in the sublime beauty of Rückert’s poetry, Strauss’s setting, and Brugger’s and Blier’s performance. The artists created an exquisitely still moment at “The soul of creation is eternal peace.”
The program ended with another Schoenberg cabaret song, “Aria from ‘The Mirror of Arcadia,’” with words by none other than Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist of The Magic Flute. This was a delightfully silly bit of adolescent fantasy à la Cherubino: if the gods were just, I’d have a thousand women and dance like a woodchuck, scamper like a rabbit, etc. After each verse the refrain has his heart going “boom, boom, boom” many times and accelerating. Once again, the two singers divvied up verses and even—in the final refrain—the booms. Great fun was had by all. The perfectly chosen encore was Tom Lehrer’s Alma, Tell Us, impishly taking stock of Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel’s, ah, colorful marital (and extramarital) history; again, both singers and Blier went to town.
As the owner of several NYFOS CDs, I arrived with high expectations which were met and sometimes exceeded. John Brancy and Janai Brugger both possess exceptionally beautiful, flexible voices but also, more importantly, an artistic maturity beyond their tender years. I fervently hope they and NYFOS will become regular visitors to Boston.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.