An individual who serves as her own lawyer has a fool for a client. To justify engaging herself as accompanist, a classical singer needs more than a double endowment of musical gifts; she requires an exalted degree of stage presence to achieve artistry in those dual capacities. Pop legends like Little Richard, Elton John, and even Tom Lehrer hit such marks because they had huge stage personas and knew the scores… but what of the poised singer-pianist who self-partnered in Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben for the Foundation of Chinese Performing Arts at Williams Hall last night?
“A standout in both international piano competitions and vocal competitions,” Chelsea Guo is currently completing her Bachelor of Music degree in piano at Juilliard under Hung-Kuan Chen while enjoying a burgeoning careers. She will be performing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concert No, 1 here with the Longwood Symphony in the fall.
Appearing in a long, blue, silk moirè gown with a white bow, she welcomed us with great warmth, delivering genial explanations and safe portrayals of the tensions and the mutual love within the Johannes-Robert-Clara club. She averred that the opener, Robert’s Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood), actually depicted Clara’s. In Of Foreign Lands and People one could immediately tell from Guo’s straight-through treatment of the dotted notes and the pauses, just how untroubled a childhood she would depict. Her pearly tone and safe, generic interpretation left the impression of a not-yet fully formed musical personality. The fast and fun numbers went by pleasurably, but the more introspective episodes, such as Träumerie (Dreaming) and The Poet Speaks needed more longing and nobility. And next time, the Foundation should provide movement titles for a work such as this, as well as texts and translations for songs.
The theme is a beautiful melody in D major, presented in a rich contrapuntal setting that leaves it almost over-supplied with possibilities. However, Brahms concentrates on the theme’s harmonic structure to provide a framework for fresh invention—though paradoxically the harmonic structure is itself dominated and somewhat restricted at each end of the theme by a pedal bass, whose implications are sometimes accepted and sometimes ignored. There are eleven variations, and all except the last are confined to the theme’s unusual dimensions: two nine-bar halves, each half repeated.
The first seven variations, all in D major, are quiet and introspective, featuring several technical devices that at the time were considered ‘archaic’. No. 5, for instance, is a canon in contrary motion, the canon moving a bar closer in the variation’s second half. The bareness and angularity of No. 7, an even stricter canon, with its wide leaps for both hands, almost looks like Webern on the page. With No. 8, a vigorous study in martial dotted rhythms, the pace increases and the tonality shifts to the minor. The next variation forms the dynamic climax, turning the pedal bass into rumbling drum effects to bolster emphatic chordal writing. From here the music subsides uneasily to variation 11, which returns to D major and to the original tempo of the theme, then opens out into an expansive coda that eventually achieves a subdued but beautiful resolution, with a final reminiscence of the theme in a lulling berceuse-like rhythm.
Guo delivered the initial statement in a long, loving arc and, with technical prowess, endowed each etude-like variation with character.
The pianist engaged most deeply with Clara’s late Three Romances, Op. 21. According to Kristina Gray, its “…topical references to the pastoral, coupled with themes written by Robert Schumann, evoke a sense of retrospectivity and idealization of the past. The ways in which these references are paired with recurring melodic motifs indicates continual return to a memory.” Guo smoldered in the very pensive first number, rising to the first ff of the night. In the second she entertained us with sprightly, impressionistic syncopations. In the third, she wove the moto-perpetuo accompanimental figures with soaring melodic affirmations. The second section, with depictions of maturing feelings, perhaps agony over Robert’s decline, gave Guo the cue to revel in the turbulent intimations of trouble: Robert would be dead two years later.
In a dramatic flashback Guo then turned to the second of Robert’s Three Romances from 1839. These engagement gifts to Clara, remained her among her favorites. “I lay claim to the Romances; as your bride you still have to dedicate something to me, and I know of nothing more tender than these three Romances, especially the middle one, which is the most beautiful love duet.” With the benefit of historical hindsight, Guo gave lovely keyboard voice to this Liebestod.
So here, finally, I disinter the buried lede. Chelsea Guo can sing an important song cycle while accompanying herself—but she shouldn’t have. It came across as a talent show. She possesses a voice with bright, steely high notes and a warm mezzo low register. Her dynamic range is ample for Lieder, though her pleasant and distinctive tone wants variety of coloration. Her German needs a bit of coaching. Her piano technique is exemplary, but the self-collaboration did not exceed the sum of its parts.
The nine-foot Steinway had been turned to a 45-degree angle for the second half, pointing the long tail toward me. From her seated position at the keyboard, Guo’s eyes could barely peer out over her iPad. Her thrice-divided attentions—to the pages, to the keyboard, and to the half of the crowd that could see her face—robbed most of us of a Liederabend’s essential intimacy between artist and audience. A great singer can convey an illusion, even in a large auditorium, of addressing us as individuals. It didn’t work that way last night. If Guo memorizes, works with a sensitive colleague, and can use her entire face and body to put a song across, she will make a much stronger impact as a singer. She got a bit closer to that ideal in the Schumann-Liszt Widmung which she had memorized. At times she sang over quieted melody notes in the transcription, at other moments she gave it the brilliant Liszt piano-solo treatment.
We welcomed Clara Schumann’s Liebst du um Schönheit (a Rückert text more famously set by Mahler) as the charmed encore.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer