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The Golden Age of Singing by Bernard Jacobson

No, this is not going to be one of those nostalgia pieces about the dear dead vocal days beyond recall. What I want to enthuse about is the wealth of talent we have heard in Philadelphia just in the past few weeks.

The sequence of notable singers began on February 20, when Ewa Podles gave a recital in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater under the auspices of the enterprising Philadelphia Chamber Music Society–one of some 60 programs offered by the Society this season. In this case, I would say "notable" but not "great." The Polish contralto has a remarkable voice, and an unusual one in these days when mezzo-sopranos seem in vastly greater supply than the genuine alto article. But at least in this program of songs by Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Turina, and Dvorák, while the lower reaches of her range encompassed some thrilling chest tones, everything above that register suffered from monotony of color: there was precious little response to either the sound or the sense of the words, and the vowel sounds in particular were all homogenized into a pervasive and stifling "aw."

Much more to the point of my "Golden Age" claim was the appearance, the very next night, of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in Christoph Eschenbach’s Philadelphia Orchestra performance of the Mahler Third Symphony and in a charming post-concert Lieder recital with him, both of which I have already reviewed on this site. By contrast with Podles, Hunt Lieberson has a vividly pointed sense of verbal nuance to go with her fluently produced voice. But it was later in the same weekend that the really wonderful singing was to be heard, from two Russian soloists in Shostakovich’s harrowing and profound Fourteenth Symphony. I should mention that I do not usually offer critical comment on the activities of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, being very much involved with that organization as program annotator and presenter of pre-concert talks. This program, however, which prefaced the Shostakovich with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, provided performances so superb that I cannot resist saluting them. To be sure, the kind of criticism that spotlights supposed personal affinities between performer and music performed is usually misguided. Yet I find it hard, when Shostakovich’s devastating if oblique portrait of Russian suffering is the matter at hand, and the man on the podium is named Solzhenitsyn, not to infer some significance from the circumstance. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of Alexander, lives, to our great good fortune, in Philadelphia. A relatively recent graduate of the Curtis Institute, where he is now a professor of piano, he is also principal conductor and music director designate of the Chamber Orchestra, with which he gives about six pairs of concerts a season. This one featured soprano Elena Prokina and bass Sergei Leiferkus. I have heard Leiferkus a number of times in the past, and knew what a superb artist he is, but I was unprepared for the extraordinary impact of my first experience of Prokina. In her riveting performance, intensity of dramatic characterization was enhanced by a voice of impressive purity and steadiness, as well as an ability to veer in the space of a few measures from the most subtle of pianissimos to an overwhelming fortissimo without the slightest hint of clumsiness or harshness. It was, in every respect, the finest realization of one of Shostakovich’s most challenging and rewarding scores that I have ever encountered.

As if all this was not enough, a few days later–again thanks to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, this time in collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s "Mahler’s World" festival – Christoph Eschenbach stepped onto the Perelman Theater stage as a wonderfully sensitive pianistic partner to the German baritone Matthias Goerne. With a first half devoted to Mahler and a second half of Schumann (including such unfamiliar and fascinating songs as Die Löwenbraut), Goerne achieved a level of identification with text and music no less total and inspiring than that of his Russian colleagues the week before. The voice, too, is of surpassing beauty, and was deployed with the kind of expressive concentration and often of sheer delicacy that makes the enthralled listener forget to breathe. This too was one of the great evenings, and it was closely rivaled later in the week when Goerne joined Eschenbach and the orchestra in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, as prelude to a thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. (At least, it thrilled me–it is only fair to add that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s critic took a very dim view of Eschenbach’s conducting.)

So what is all this we are always hearing about the Golden Age of Singing as a thing of the past? I know my comments are unlikely to impress devotees of–to offer just a few examples – Ponselle, Tebaldi, and Callas, or Caruso, Martinelli, and Björling; or in the Germanic sphere Elisabeth Schumann, Lotte Lehmann, Viorica Ursuleac, Gerhard Hüsch, Heinrich Schlusnus, and their like. Indeed, I share their devotion to most of those artists. But it seems to me that a period when, quite apart from the singers I have heard these last weeks, we can listen to such luminaries as Véronique Gens and Natalie Dessay, of Cecilia Bartoli and Barbara Frittoli and Sara Mingardo, or Sophie Daneman and Susan Graham and Ian Bostridge, or Anne Sofie von Otter and Marijana Mijanovic and Magdalena Kozená, or Thomas Hampson and Thomas Quasthoff, or – even at this late stage in his career – Placido Domingo, not to mention the current crop of magnificent countertenors including Andreas Scholl, Daniel Taylor, David Daniels, Robin Blaze, and Bejun Mehta –well, it seems to me that this is not a period that need fear comparison with any great age of the past.

Bernard Jacobson




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