Emanuel Ax returned to Davies Symphony Hall last night for the second of three programs he has prepared to celebrate the “double bicentennial” of the births of Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin. For the first, which took place in January, he was joined by Yo-Yo Ma; and together they explored the cello repertoire of both composers. This time he was joined by soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the focus was on art song. Ax’ series will conclude with a solo recital on April 25.
While the cello recital explored compositions of a variety of durations, last night’s recital was very much a celebration of brevity. Chopin composed seventeen songs on texts by Polish poets that were published posthumously as Opus 74. These are seldom performed, probably in no small part because most singers are unfamiliar with the Polish language. As a result they tend to be better known by pianists through transcriptions by Franz Liszt; and, for me at least, this was how I recognized the first (“The Wish”) and the last (“My Darling”) of the seven songs that Upshaw selected.
From a strictly physical point of view, singing Polish is no easy matter. It is a consonant-heavy language thrust into a setting where responsibility for pitch must, of necessity, reside almost entirely with vowels. My guess is that Upshaw has not acquired a conversational command of Polish, but she is one of those singers whose performances are informed by acute perceptions. Through these particular performances, we could appreciate the ways in which Chopin shaped his music around those constraints involved in clear articulation of the texts; and Upshaw’s ear for that fit was sure enough that she could execute it convincingly, even if she could not ask for directions on the streets of Warsaw. From the listener’s point of view, it was sufficient to skim each of the short poems for a basic sense of the author’s intent and then let the music take care of the rest through both Chopin’s conception and Upshaw’s execution.
The brevity of the songs was matched by the four short mazurkas collected as Opus 41, which Ax performed between the fourth and fifth of Upshaw’s selections. The selection of mazurkas was appropriate on at least two counts. While all of the poems were authored, they were all based on strongly folk-like themes; and Chopin’s mazurkas are the major body of his own take on Polish folk music. More specifically, “The Wish” is actually in mazurka form; so Opus 41 provided an opportunity for the accompanying pianist to assume the role of reflective soloist. Nevertheless, Ax did not steal the show with these selections, allowing them to serve as utilitarian “breathing space” before Upshaw continued with the song selections.
This idea of a pianist finding his proper role was then further scrutinized in the West Coast premiere of a new song cycle by Stephen Prutsman entitled Piano Lessons, based on six texts by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Here, again, brevity was the order of the evening. Each poem is a short self-contained reflection on the relationship between the student and his studies. A teacher appears, in a very abstracted form, in the first three songs. followed by two in which the student is self-motivated and concluding with a poem whose first line is “Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.” There is very little explicit citation from the student repertoire. As Prutsman put it in his notes for the program book:
Though there are no direct quotations from the music of Chopin and Schumann, there are nods in their direction, reference to the great American song tradition, and a hint of musique française.
The most pronounced nod to Chopin comes in the coda to the final song with an evocation of his nocturne style. Curiously, “My Darling,” the last of Upshaw’s Chopin selections, is also a nocturne, providing a pleasing symmetry between her ordering of seven Chopin songs and the six poems in Prutsman’s cycle.
After the intermission Ax moved from the evocation of nocturne to the performance of the two Opus 27 nocturnes. These were the longest works of the evening (which should again reinforce the sense of brevity in the overall experience). These were definitely not performances to provide “breathing space.” Ax penetrated the intricate detail in each of the two nocturnes, keeping the pause between them brief enough for the ear to take in the enharmonic relationship between the C-sharp minor of the first and the D-flat major of the second. (I have not checked this thoroughly, but this may be the only time when Chopin establishes such an enharmonic link between two works in a single opus collection.)
Upshaw then returned to sing twelve songs selected from several of Schumann’s publications: Opus 25, Opus 39, Opus 79, Opus 83, Opus 89, Opus 96, and Opus 98a. In this case the language was clearly more familiar to the singer, and most of the poets were probably more familiar to the audience. Thus, it was easier to appreciate matters such as Upshaw’s diction and her command of the dramatic elements in the texts. It was also interesting that she concluded with “Widmung,” another song that tends to be better known by pianists through Liszt’s transcription.
Upshaw’s penultimate selection was Schumann’s setting of Eduard Mörike’s poem “Er Ist’s;” and this provided an opportunity for the final revelation of the evening. With all the attention to Chopin and Schumann, it has been almost entirely overlooked that Hugo Wolf was born on March 13, 1860; so the 150th anniversary of his birth took place exactly a week before last night’s recital. Thus, Upshaw selected as her encore Wolf’s setting of “Er Ist’s,” whose coda is a piano solo in which the accompanist wildly deserts the vocalist in his own abandoned celebration of spring. There could not have been a better way to celebrate the volatility of Wolf’s inventiveness, but it left me wondering why there have been so few opportunities to hear the Wolf repertoire in San Francisco recently.
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