Friday, December 7, 2018

Juilliard Vocal Arts: Schumann, Debussy, Gounod and Leoncavallo

I went earlier this week to Alice Tully Hall to hear another installment in Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series.  On this occasion the vocal arts were featured with a program that included works by Schumann, Debussy, Gounod and Leoncavallo.

The recital began with five selections from Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 39 (1840) - #1, In der Fremde; #3, Waldesgespräch; #6, Schöne Fremde; #9, Wehmut; and #12, Frühlingsnacht - that set to music poems by Joseph Eichendorff.  Schumann was compulsive in his compositional habits.  He would work exclusively on a particular genre for a year or so and then move on to another when he had exhausted the first.  Accordingly, 1840, in the course of which he composed no less than 138 songs, is known as his Liederjahr with the Op. 39 one of its outstanding successes.  Nowhere is Schumann's Romanticism so openly on display as here in his adaptations of one of the nineteenth century's premiere German writers.  And of course, there was a personal side to it as well, for 1840 was the year Schumann was finally able to wed his beloved Clara.  The selections were sung by bass-baritone James Rootring who was accompanied by pianist Chris Reynolds.

Next were the three songs - La flûte de Pan, La Chevelure, and Le Tombeau des naïades - that make up Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (1897-1898).  The songs take as their source an eponymous collection of prose poems by Pierre Louÿs that constitutes one of the most infamous hoaxes in French literary history.  The poet's accomplishment was to pass off as genuine antique Greek verses, all of them with explicit lesbian themes, poetry of his own invention.  The work was of such high quality that even after Louÿs's authorship had been revealed the poems continued to be admired as masterpieces of fin de siècle French literature.  Whether or not Debussy was aware of the hoax, he treated Louÿs's poems with absolute respect and even went so far as to use modal scales to give the songs a properly antique flavor.  The vocalist on these works was mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio; Chris Reynolds was once again the accompanist.

The next set of musicians to take the stage were Dashuai Chen, tenor, and Richard Fu, pianist.  Together they performed two songs by Gounod - L'absent (1876) and Où voulez-vous aller? (1839) - followed by Leoncavallo's Mattinatta (1904).  Of the two works by Gounod, L'absent was by far the more interesting, both for its sensuous melody and for its scandalous backstory.  The composer had fled the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War by traveling to England with his wife for a lengthy sojourn.  In point of fact, Gounod's stay proved much longer than that of his wife who returned to France as soon as hostilities had ended.  The composer, meanwhile, tarried in England with a newfound mistress, one Georgina Weldon, now remembered as much for her campaign against British lunacy laws as for her love of music (she was an amateur soprano).  When Gounod finally tired of Weldon and returned to France, he found himself not only the object of his wife's wrath but ostracized by Parisian society as well.  The composer wrote the lyrics and music to L'absent in an attempt to solve both dilemmas and was remarkably successful in each instance.  

Où voulez-vous aller? was a much earlier effort by Gounod, the first of his published songs and the only one to have been composed before he won the prestigious Prix de Rome.  Based on a poem by Théophile Gautier entitled Barcarole, this is a song of seduction in the final stanza of which la jeune belle has the last word when she confounds her would-be seducer, who has tempted her with voyages to exotic lands, by telling him she wishes to travel only so far as la rive fidèle, i.e. fidelity's shore.  The poem was later set by Berlioz in an entirely different manner as the concluding song of Les nuits d’été.

In contrast to Gounod's lyrical songs, Leoncavallo's Mattinatta was conceived as a bravura showpiece for tenor Enrico Caruso to whom it was dedicated and who first recorded it.  Since then it's been part of the repertoire of every major opera tenor (almost all of whose renditions can now be heard on You Tube) and for good reason.  When sung well, it's certain to bring down the house at any performance, just as it did on Wednesday afternoon.

For completeness sake, there were also included in the program works by two other composers that I did not stay to hear.  These were, respectively, three selections from Love After 1950 by Libby Larsen followed by three selections from Hair Emergency!, described in the program notes as "A cycle of songs inspired by online reviews of hairdressers," by Richard Pearson Thomas.

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