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A Mezzo’s Life and Loves


Susan Graham with pianist Brian Moore (Robert Torres photo)
Susan Graham with pianist Brian Moore (Robert Torres photo)

The esteemed mezzo soprano Susan Graham and pianist Bradley Moore brought an intriguing program called “Frauenliebe und -leben: Variations” to Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series on Friday. As Graham explained, they “exploded” Robert Schumann’s song cycle by making each of its eight songs the focus of a group of like-themed ones by other composers. Even if they explored each aspect of “woman’s love and life” with songs of similar themes, it became fascinating to see how differently the various composers treat them. Moreover, Graham made the crucial observation that the subservience of the cycle’s female protagonist—generally repulsive to those who believe in women’s equality—is not gender-based but class-based: in Adelbert von Chamisso’s larger set of poems she begins as a domestic employed by the man who will ultimately be the love of her life. The range of other composers was impressively large (songs sung in German, Norwegian, English, French, Swedish, Spanish, and Russian), but it was a pity that Graham had to refer to printed music quite often, even in standard repertoire, which sometimes limited her expression. Nonetheless, this programming was imaginative and edifying.

Beginning with Schumann’s cycle, Graham and Moore gave the narrator a charming hesitancy in “Since I have seen him I think I am blind,” her reticence unable to conceal (from us at any rate) her powerful attraction. In “The Encounter” Edvard Grieg’s mountain maid—the Haugtussa of his song cycle’s title—actually speaks (though managing only silliness) with the object of her love but ends up falling asleep in his arms. Graham made convincing the considerable progression within a single song, and Moore played the sumptuous piano part handsomely. An early Richard Strauss song, “Since your eyes looked into mine,” was lushly seductive.

Frauenliebe II, “He, the most wonderful of all”, though beautifully sung, was rather generic in expression; if this was an artistic choice to offset the excessively (to our modern ears) self-abnegating text, it was not successful. An engaging setting of Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by Sir John Dankworth (1927-2010) sounded like a hybrid of Francis Poulenc and Stephen Sondheim; the artists rendered an attractive performance, capped by Graham’s exquisite floated high note. Gabriel Fauré’s “Song of Love,” like its two predecessors, constitutes a catalogue of the wonderful attributes, physical and otherwise, of the beloved. If the rubato here felt a bit much for this composer, nevertheless the artists employed it to underline important places in the poem (“my hell and my paradise”) and interesting harmonic progressions. In Ture Rangström’s “Melody,” the sole Swedish song on the program, Graham showed intimacy and ecstasy while Moore made the piano part deliciously frothy (an illustration of “foamy shores”, perhaps). A Ned Rorem song (I didn’t catch the title due to the boisterous audience), a last-minute addition lasting less than a minute, seemed almost like a charming extension of the Rangström.

In “I cannot grasp it, cannot believe it,” Frauenliebe III, the man is quoted declaring his love for the protagonist; Graham delineated the separate voices, giving the man gravity and making the woman all breathless disbelief until she begins to calm at the end, as though starting to believe. The performers proceeded with virtually no pause into “I Love You”, perhaps Grieg’s best-known song, as if the previous song’s man reassured the woman though with gravity giving way to passion. Fauré’s “At the Riverside”, concerning long-term love untouched by worldly troubles, was more chastely rendered than “Song of Love”, the duo imparting a sweet wistfulness to it. The echoing ending (“never to change”) was especially touching.

In Schumann’s fourth song, “Your ring on my finger”, the narrator muses on the symbol of her beloved’s mutual adoration: her engagement ring. With her devotion never less than evident, the tenderness of the poem was undermined by a slightly too brisk tempo which also lessened the effect of the central accelerando. The rather contorted fairy tale of Gustav Mahler’s “Little Rhine Legend” communicated delight with Graham as wide-eyed naïf telling the story complete with numerous gestures and Moore’s slightly clipped, witty playing suggesting that he, perhaps as indulgent audience, is not so easily taken in. In Joaquín Turina’s “The Two Fears” the woman evinces a rather unbalanced love: when her beloved is far away she is afraid of him, being so close; when he is close she is fearful to be without him. Graham made her quite charismatic, if dotty, and Moore, generally suave here, jolted us with the suddenly minor, fortissimo piano interlude, possibly reflecting the character’s state of mind.

“Help me, sisters”, Frauenliebe V, depicts the bride-to-be joyfully enlisting her sisters to help her prepare for her wedding. Although the swift tempo and rising and falling dynamics conveyed the maiden’s urgency, Graham remained curiously poker-faced until the extended piano postlude. Schumann’s two “Songs of the Bride” (“Mother, mother! Do not believe” and “Let me cling to his chest”), taken from a different song-set, were well chosen for their familial associations, maternal this time. In the first, Graham, quietly rapturous, made us feel the narrator’s gratitude to her mother for giving her the life which has become so joyous. In the second, she skillfully took us from calm bliss to moderate agitation and back again. Ravel’s Greek folk song arrangement “Everyone is happy!” rounded out the first half with plenty of vitality and rhythmic thrust, but even when “the dishes are dancing,” there was nary a smile to be seen until the final chord. Still, better late than never, for, as Graham had remarked at the beginning, the intermission represented the wedding night, and we know what happens then . . .

But in fact the second half opened with a group of songs describing “what happens then”. First came Henri Duparc’s Phidylé, with its sensual undulations, lush evocations of numerous natural phenomena on a sunny summer day, and ultimately one of the most resounding and lengthy climaxes in art song. The performers made gorgeous music and illustrated vividly throughout, though the climactic stanza found Moore perhaps a bit overly considerate of Graham, whose voice is no shrinking violet, here I missed the pianist’s orchestral richness of the previous stanzas. Debussy’s “The Hair” came across as truly erotic and dreamlike, using encircling hair as the starting point for a union both physical and spiritual between man and woman. As in the text, Graham’s final phrase did indeed cause a frisson. In the second half, each group closed, rather than opened, with its Frauenliebe song, never more aptly than here: “Sweet friend, you look at me” would seem to depict the afterglow following lovemaking. Except for a temporary quickening of tempo when the protagonist bids her beloved to feel her beating heart, the artists gave the song a lovely languor while yet being highly expressive. Graham in particular made large crescendos, not specified by Schumann but most appropriate, on the sustained notes that begin most phrases of this song.

The next group, dealing with what Graham had observed “happens nine months after the wedding night”, began with Poulenc’s “The Baby Carafe”, another amusingly peculiar fairy tale in the “Little Rhine Legend” manner. A carafe observes, if a giraffe at the zoo can have a baby giraffe, why can’t I have a baby carafe? Merlin intervenes to grant her wish. Once again, Graham was an expert and physical storyteller, eliciting multiple chuckles from the audience, and Moore dealt expertly and wittily with the piano part. Tchaikovsky’s “Lullaby” is the quintessentially Russian example of its genre: minor-key (the original is that rarest of keys, a-flat minor), depressing, but very beautiful. Graham’s tenderness moved us with a breathtaking piano high note near the end. Moore made poignant use of the dense chromaticism of his part. In Strauss’s “Little Cradle Song” the mezzo was warm and motherly while her partner delicately evoked a little spider spinning a web. “On my heart, on my breast”, Frauenliebe VII, brought an ecstatic outpouring from Graham, but in the first part Moore deferred a bit too much, obscuring the piano part’s sextuplet rhythm. The ending, however, was spot-on as the young mother gives way to happy exhaustion leading to another evocative piano postlude.

With its repetitions of “come back, come back,” Hector Berlioz’s “Absence” is usually interpreted as a wish for the beloved to come back from his distant travels. However, Graham’s dynamically varied but always pained deliveries made clear that she felt the absence due to his death; the separation became permanent and incontrovertible. She and Moore made something truly poignant of this lovely song. In the far more dramatic “Oh, cruel death!” by Enrique Granados, the singer’s entered with a leap to near the top of her range, followed a couple phrases later by a plunge below the staff. Both artists employed a very wide range of dynamics, and Graham’s free use of her husky chest register made this a visceral experience of unbridled grief.

Roger Quilter’s setting of “How should I your true love know?” (sung in Hamlet by the mad Ophelia), is a simple, melodic threnody; if not for the peculiar text one would not intuit the singer’s demented state (very unlike the Strauss setting). The duo found simplicity and touching warmth. In the final song of Schumann’s cycle, “Now have you caused me my first pain”, the musicians touched on several of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief: the stabbing piano and vocal attacks of the first section portrayed anger, accusation, and betrayal. As the song progressed, the protagonist came gradually to accept her widowhood. The extraordinary piano postlude reverts to the opening music of the cycle as she turns to her many happy memories for comfort: Graham’s facial expressions amounted to a catalogue of these over Moore’s gentle musical reminiscence.

After the almost obligatory standing ovation (I hope I am not a curmudgeon in observing that this is now the rule with famous artists, not the exception) came two treasurable encores: Reynaldo Hahn’s À Chloris and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I —the first, graceful, understated, and wholly bewitching, and the second, beautifully “crossed over”.

See related interview here.

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.

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