IN: Reviews

First and Last Song Sets


Music Mondays hosted soprano Letitia Stevens and pianist Bonnie Donham this past Monday at the Scandinavian Cultural Center in Newton and on livestream.

In Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, the first song cycle ever written, the six songs are through-composed and unified via interrelated keys, cross referenced motifs and a return of earlier materials at the end. Principally an ode to a lost love, Beethoven also supports poet Alois Jeitteles’s German romantic devotion to nature. In the third song, continuous triplets in the piano represent a brook. In the fifth, piano trills and response recall the bird songs of the second movement of the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven depicts many colors of love with the fifth song, exhibiting a passionate fervor before the resigned ending “No spring shines on our love.” Stevens’s hushed intensity on a tonic G repeated 35 times (second song, m. 20-29) while the piano takes over the melody sung in the first verse worked very effectively. The duo easily conveyed the warm, unaffected folk style, which forms the core of this composition.

Non mi dir, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, followed. With unfulfilled love the theme again, Donna Anna tells her fiancée that this is not the moment for marriage. Stevens’s expressive bel canto well-suited the supplications of the text, while Donham’s delicate arpeggios softened the message.

Richard Strauss completed his Four Last Songs (originally for soprano and orchestra) at the age of 84. No strong evidence exists that he meant for them to be performed together. His friend Ernst Roth posthumously provided the title of the set and established the order which most performers use today.

Calm and resignation prevail. Frühling (Spring) communicates a strong sense of longing. Only at m. 21 is the first cadence heard, and the verse, though devoted to spring, opens with a description of “twilight tombs.” Steven’s powerful, soaring soprano line evoked the trees and sky described in the text while Donham artfully conveyed the rich varied sounds of the orchestra. September describes the lingering end of summer via chord progressions that slow through repeated half steps or decorative triplets. Donham’s warm tone evoked the final horn solo of this mournful piece. In the rising but restrained melodies of Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep), Stevens sang with a blissful lyricism that reminded all of us of the unique comfort that darkness provides.

An arc of sound evokes the sunset of Im Abenrot, reminding again of the allure of darkness, but lightened by the rising trills which represent “two larks…dreaming in the scene of evening.” The Lied ends “is this death?” Donham’s fluid touch in the trills now evoked eternity. Letitia’s reverent handling of her line brought out the humility and quietude of Strauss’s portrayal.

The encore, Chi il bel song de Doretta from Puccini’s La Rondine, a florid testimony to the powers of love, ended the concert in joy and merriment.

Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.

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