Performance Friday, February 24, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Erin Morley
Vlad Iftinca

Weill Recital Hall
For Erin Morley, last season was what she called “the year of the Queen”: She wowed audiences in Santa Fe, Frankfurt, and Dresden as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. This season, the regal, young soprano appears in Robert Lepage’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera—and gives a recital of songs by Haydn, Rossini, Schubert, and others at Carnegie Hall.
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The Program

“Berenice, che fai,” Hob. XXIVa:10

Haydn composed “Berenice, che fai” for soprano Brigida Banti, who performed it at a benefit concert in May 1795 at the King’s Theatre. The composer was disappointed with her performance, noting in fractured English in his diary that “she sang very scanty.” (This was clearly an “off” night for a soprano whose autopsy revealed a pair of unusually large lungs.) The text comes from Pietro Metastasio’s opera Antigono, in which the loving, passionate Berenice is seized by anguish after the death of her lover Demetrio.

The scene begins with a lengthy stretch of accompanied recitative in which the music tracks every twist and turn of Berenice’s tumultuous emotions: We hear her strange and icy shiver in the accompaniment, the mystery of dark fantasies low in the voice, and her dramatic imprecation against the cruel gods. Embedded in this colorful recitative are two arias in contrasting moods: The first, “Non partir, bell’idol mio,” is drenched in pathos all the more powerful for its Classical restraint; the second, “Perchè, se tanti siete,” is an impassioned plea that her life might end. The huge range of emotions the aria’s final passage encompasses the depths and the heights of grief.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Der Sandmann,” Op. 79, No. 12; “Des Sennen Abschied,” Op. 79, No. 22; “Liebeslied,” Op. 51, No. 5

Because Robert Schumann’s songs of 1840 are so popular, people sometimes neglect the specimens from the later 1840s and early 1850s of his late style, just before his descent into insanity in 1854. But many of these works are extraordinary—different from the familiar masterpieces of the 1830s and earlier 1840s, but beautiful.

After his keyboard collection Album für die Jugend (Album for Young People), Op. 68, Schumann followed up with 20 songs and duets composed in 1849 and published them as Lieder-Album für die Jugend (Song Album for Young People), Op. 79. “It has been selling like few or no other works of recent times,” Schumann wrote to his friend Franz Brendel. “Here, a proud papa divides the album into an initial section Für Kleinere (For smaller children) and a second half Für Erwachsenere (For the more grown-up)”—the latter compositions represent emotions the truly young might not yet be able to comprehend. We hear one song from each half.

Der Sandmann” brings to life a folklore character who sprinkles magic sand on children’s eyes to bring sleep and dreams. The grit or “sleep” in one’s eyes upon awakening is supposed to be his doing. As the sandman sings, the piano invokes his light, careful footsteps in the left hand and the silvery sprinkling of sand in the right hand. We hear him slipping upstairs in a flash, as well as a heartfelt prayer at the end.

Des Sennen Abschied” enters the realm of teenagers and young adults. At summer’s end, the herdsman must descend from the mountain meadows; we hear evocations of the ranz des vaches, the herder’s horn call over folkish drone basses.

Liebeslied” is Schumann’s somewhat pedestrian title for an unnamed poem from Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (Western-Oriental Anthology), a transformation of Persian poetry for the poet’s own Olympian purposes. In the section entitled Chiffer (Codes), Goethe discusses how lovers used to exchange coded poems based on the same book. No one has solved the literary riddle posed by this poem, its third and fourth verses are a reworking of stanzas by Marianne von Willemer. This gifted woman’s correspondence with Goethe was not published until 1873, at which point the world learned of their love for one another from a distance, beginning with their first meeting in 1814 until his death in 1832. In this exquisite song, Schumann seems to signify the lovers’ separation by separated phrases, with the piano serving as a link between the singers’ lines across the space that divides them.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“La danza”; “Mi lagnerò tacendo”; “La fioraja fiorentina”

After the premiere of his opera Guillaume Tell at the Paris Opéra in 1829, Rossini turned his back on opera houses for the remaining four decades of his life. He had obtained a pension from the government of Charles X, but revolution in 1830 forced him to fight in court for six years to win it back. But before he moved to Bologna in 1836, he held weekly soirées in his home in Paris; the eight chamber arias and four duets published as the Soirées musicales prove that his departure from the operatic stage did not indicate any decline in his compositional prowess.

In 1855, Rossini and his second wife, Olympe Pélissier, returned to Paris, where Rossini came back to life after years of illness—whether real or hypochondriac in origin is unclear. Between 1857 and his death in 1868, he composed small-scale piano works, chamber compositions, and songs for his weekly salons on the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. The pieces were gathered into 13 volumes collectively entitled Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age), including the whimsical “Castor Oil Prelude” and “Petulant Rococo Prelude.” Sadly, Rossini, who devoted much time to editing these works before his death, never saw their publication.

In its folk incarnations, the tarantella was a mimed courtship dance often performed by one couple surrounded by a circle of other couples and accompanied by castanets and tambourines; onlookers would burst into song on occasion. In the artful manifestation in “La danza,” the piano begins the whirlwind of motion characteristic of tarantellas, and the vocal line joins in with leaps and twirls to represent an energetic group of Neapolitan dancers.

Mi lagnerò tacendo” (“I will suffer in silence”) is set to Pietro Metastasio’s words from the opera libretto of Siroe, re di Persia. Rossini, whose personality included marked depressive traits, set these words to music some 10 times for almost every vocal type. In the opera, the character Laodice—mistress of Cosroe, King of Persia, but in love with Prince Siroe—sings this aria in the midst of her sufferings; Rossini altered the texts in ways that suggest personal meaning. His settings run the emotional gamut from elegant flippancy to anger and resentment, defiance and pained sorrow. Each one explores a different substratum of feeling from a psychologically complex state of being.

La fioraja fiorentina” is an extended show-stopper song based around a compelling character: a flower seller in Florence who entices passersby to purchase her fresh roses, and then switches to lamentation about her “poor mother” who needs bread. Originally, this song was a setting of “Mi lagnerò tacendo,” but Rossini later asked an unknown poet to provide new words. The outbreak of lamentation (“Ahimè!”) is intensely dramatic, and the final blandishments are florid.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

About Francis Poulenc and Louise de Vilmorin

Francis Poulenc was described by critic Claude Rostand as “half monk, half delinquent.” His marvelous songs can be divided into the fleet, flippant, merrily Parisian variety and the graver, moving works. He did not have to worry about a living; the firm of Rhône-Poulenc was and is a large chemical corporation, and Poulenc could devote himself to music. An openly gay man—though he had relationships with women, as well—he was also sincere in his Catholic religious convictions.

Louise de Vilmorin was an extraordinary and seductive woman: Engaged to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince) in her youth, she would subsequently marry an American real-estate heir and a Hungarian playboy before becoming the mistress of another Hungarian count, the British ambassador and statesman André Malraux (she called herself “Marilyn Malraux”). From 1936 on, she was Poulenc’s preferred woman poet, her verse giving him the chance to write songs for women. The veiled eroticism, romantic grace, and virtuoso wordplay of her verse appealed to him; she in turn acknowledged that, “It was you who decreed that I should be a poet.”

Poulenc’s first Vilmorin songs

This first Vilmorin-Poulenc collaboration resulted in three “takes” on love. In “Le garçon de Liège,” she plays with the words “Liège” (a city in Belgium) and “léger” (“light”) to tell of a youthful love affair that has gone with the wind. After a declamatory fanfare in the piano at the beginning, the music takes off, the accompaniment foaming like soap bubbles. “Au-delà” is Vilmorin’s erotic credo with its light, delicate celebration of the “hour of pleasure” and the game of love. The piano roams and wanders rather like its poet seeking one lover after another. After these delicious frivolities, it is a surprise to encounter “Aux officiers de la garde blanche.” This is an unconventional prayer to the “officers of the White Guard,” or angels. The persona prays that she not fall even more deeply in love with this man, but one senses that the battle is already lost.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Four Songs, Op. 13

Samuel Barber’s uncle was the song composer Sidney Homer and his aunt was the noted opera singer Louise Homer. He, himself, contemplated a career as a singer in his youth, so it is not surprising that songs and operas dominate in his oeuvre.

“No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness,” wrote Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest and Classicist whose poems were published after his death. Renouncing poetry for his religious vocation for much of his life, he returned to it in 1875—14 years before his death. In his use of what he called “sprung rhythm” (a variable number of unstressed syllables in a line, designed to imitate speech rhythms in artful ways), Hopkins poses a challenge to song composers, but Barber met the dare in “A Nun Takes the Veil.” Pure chords in the piano—their huge spans emphasized by harp-like sweeping gestures—are arrayed in unusual progressions that suggest heavenly realms opening up.

We meet a different brand of women in “The Secrets of the Old”—women who muse on the passage of time. The singer reflects on the fact that no one else has their memories or their knowledge of life and love. The piano chords chug along nonstop in changing rhythms, rather like time and memory. The old woman does not give away any secrets, although we understand that she knows quite a few.

The poetry of James Agee—a writer now remembered primarily for his prose works A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—is marked by what a fellow poet called his “sense of being ... a raging awareness of the sensory field in depth and in detail” and for his “struggle to comprehend his place in God’s vision.” Even in “Sure on this shining night,” which asserts health and healing, we sense Agee’s awareness of life as a troubled experience through his solitary wanderer persona. Barber clothes the words in consummate richness.

The persona of “Nocturne” sings of utmost sensuality against a backdrop of falsehood, lies, and the cosmic sweep of night. From post-coital ripples to more intense waves of passion, this is a most sophisticated song of desire, cloaked in some of Barber’s richest, most Romantic harmonies.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Six Songs, Op. 38

Rachmaninoff—born into a noble, but impoverished family of Tatar descent—studied at the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, and became friends with then-unknown bass Fyodor Chaliapin in 1897. He composed three operas and three piano concertos among many other works before going into permanent exile in 1917. In the year of his death, he became an American citizen.

Between 1890 and his departure from Russia, he composed over 80 songs that featured an essentially 19th-century Russian style: long, broad melodies; rich harmonies; and a frequent sense of melancholy. These songs are in the tradition of the Russian romans, influenced by the 19th-century French romance. In its aim to share emotion with sympathetic friends, the romans is unlike either the German Lied or the “realist” songs of Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. Perhaps because he was cut off from the Russian singers and poets who had nurtured his songs, Rachmaninoff wrote almost nothing else in that genre after 1917.

The Op. 38 songs are his last before going into exile and abandoning the genre altogether. Here, Rachmaninoff turns away from Russia’s Romantic poets to the symbolists, who had become a dominant force in Russian poetry in the early-20th century. In these last songs before exile, the accompaniment becomes more virtuosic than before—he was, after all, one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous textures and sweeping melodies are infused throughout the first song, “In my garden at night.” For the beautiful lament by Aleksandr Blok—one of Russia’s most important lyric poets after Pushkin—Rachmaninoff punctuates the accompaniment with stabs of pain and fashions a rich climax before the song dies away in sorrow.

The words of the second song, “To Her,” were written by Andrei Beliy, whose novel St. Petersburg was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the great prose works of the century. Like obsessive thoughts of the beloved for whom the persona waits longingly, the bare, unharmonized figure we hear in the piano at the beginning haunts the entire first half of the song.

The eccentric “Ego-Futurist” Igor Severyanin put aside his flashier, more bizarre vein for “Daisies,” a delicate hymn to the flowers. Rachmaninoff sets most of the song in the treble register, with a dip into the lower regions for a plea that the earth and sky nourish such beauty.

In 1915, a friend reproached Rachmaninoff for his supposed bad taste in poems, so Rachmaninoff explored new territory in Russian symbolist verse for his Op. 38 songs, including “The Pied Piper” by Valery Bryusov. The myth of the pied piper is about the power of music to seduce, which we hear in the difficult piano part.

A major figure of the so-called “Silver Age” of Russian symbolist literature, Fyodor Sologub wrote the text for “A Dream.” Rachmaninoff begins with a dreamy transparency that builds to the kind of lush climax characteristic of his piano concertos and other works.

Another major symbolist writer Konstantin Balmont spent the last two decades of his life in exile and poverty. He translated Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells into Russian, which later Rachmaninoff used as the text for his Op. 35 choral symphony. “A-u!” is the biggest composition of the song group—an opulent, sweeping work that amply displays Rachmaninoff’s harmonic richness.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert is made possible by The Ruth Morse Fund for Vocal Excellence.
This performance is part of Great Singers III: Evenings of Song.

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