Everyone knows and loves Schumann’s Dichterliebe on poems by Heinrich Heine from the composer’s fecund “year of song” in 1840, when he married Clara Wieck. Not everybody knows another excellent product of that banner year, the Twelve Poems of Justinus Kerner, Op. 35, but a rare opportunity to hear this lovely cycle came in a very fine account by tenor Thomas Gregg, and pianist Thomas Stumpf, at Tufts University’s Distler Auditorium on Sunday. Repeats Monday at Boston Conservatory’s Houston Hall at 8:00 pm.
The 12 are unified by a sensible key scheme and by the infallible psychological theme of unhappy love, wandering, and reminiscence; most are short, but there are two big items, “Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud!” with its undulating organlike accompaniment, and “Stille Tränen,” with big and memorable declamation (“der Himmel wunderblau”). No less memorable are “Lust der Sturmnacht,” a romantic paean to raging weather that New Englanders find familiar, and “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes,” with tolling midnight bells and subtly changing harmonies. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the cycle is at the end of “Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud!” when the narrator laments that the young woman seeking a vocation as a nun is unaware that she is the object of his love (“Sie weiß es nicht, / Mein Herz zerbricht; / Stirb, Lieb’ und Licht!”). But no less shuddering are the last two songs, “Wer machte dich so krank?” and “Alte Laute,” both using the same melody, and concluding “and from this nightmare, only an angel will wake me.”
The concert was billed as “In Remembrance: Three Song Cycles,” rather like a Veterans’ Day commemoration of Thomas Gregg’s older family members’ service in World War II and Korea. The second half of the program began with In Memoriam, six short songs by James Hotchkiss Rogers (1857-1940), composed in 1919. Rogers, an American organist and prolific composer of organ music, songs and choruses, is forgotten today, but these songs proved to be elegant and worth resurrecting; there was some apparent influence from MacDowell and maybe Debussy in three songs on texts by Whitman, and an amiable G major setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved “Requiem” was rather like Charles Hubert Parry. “After Death in Arabia”, on a longer poem by Sir Edwin Arnold, is like a muezzin’s call to prayer, with an ornate melody and somber block chords (B-flat minor) underneath. Most of the songs made use of chordal accompaniment that sometimes seemed too heavy, when one remembers the more discreet piano textures of contemporary song composers like Roger Quilter and Percy Grainger in England, but this was occasionally justified, as by the marching sensation of Whitman’s “Joy, shipmate, joy!”.
Four Whitman Songs (1941-1947) by Kurt Weill, then in his Lady in the Dark period in America, carried the harmonic ambience of Broadway more than of Berlin of the 1920s; but these longer songs are serious tributes to the victims of war of any times, not simply the evocations from Whitman’s Civil War texts. “O Captain! My Captain!” is warmly lyrical; “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is a grim march in three stanzas in which there were chromatic chordal ascents, full of dread; “Dirge for Two Veterans” was another dead march with a dirge ostinato but in a peaceful G major. The concluding song of the set and the recital, “Come up from the fields, Father” ironically alternates the Mother’s anxious jittery triplets with a soft barcarolle-like portrait of autumn in Ohio. The most poignant, complex, and best-known, of the four Whitman texts, it ends with something of a hymn of reassurance in C major.
Thomas Gregg’s lyrical sound doesn’t have the carrying power of a heroic tenor, but it is perfectly suited to an intimate Lieder environment, and his tone was especially strong in the high notes; yet his lower register, particularly pronounced in the wide-ranging Schumann songs, was assured as well. Thomas Stumpf’s pianism felt restrained in the Schumann, but blazed forth in the bigger sound of the Rogers and Weill songs, and remained well balanced at every moment. Their partnership of sense and sensibility informed the entire splendid afternoon.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.