Performance Tuesday, February 21, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Eric Owens
Robert Spano

Zankel Hall
Last season, opera fans were abuzz over Eric Owens’s “show-stealing turn” in Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Met (The Washington Post). Hear more Wagner from Owens on this recital, but also a host of repertoire that showcases a gentler side of this astounding bass-baritone. Joining him is Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano, who is also an accomplished pianist.
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The Program

Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo

Hugo Wolf’s career burned brightly for only a decade (from 1888 to 1897), and it burned primarily in just one musical genre: Lieder. But within that realm, Wolf was a giant, considered by many to be the greatest exponent of the German song after Schubert. By 1897, his genius flickered out in madness—the tragic denouement of syphilis (Schubert’s scourge and possibly Schumann’s as well) that he had contracted years earlier.

Like Schumann, Wolf’s composing was both propelled and restricted by mood swings between manic highs and depressive lows. His good periods produced a torrent of songs, sometimes two or three a day; during his depressions, he wrote almost nothing. Also like Schumann, he was as attracted to words as to music, and he seemed to require the stimulus of words to fuel his musical inspiration. He was exceptionally discriminating in his choice of texts and in his complex and detailed response to them.

Eric Owens sings the last three songs that Wolf wrote in March 1897—six months before his final collapse. They are set to three poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti, the gigantic Renaissance artist who was less known for his talent as a poet. One also senses Wolf had made such a strong personal connection with these poems that their sentiments are as much his own as Michelangelo’s. Beginning with a brooding piano prelude, “Wohl denk ich oft” traces a journey from minor mode to major as the poet recalls the lonely days without love or recognition when he devoted himself solely to his songs; he proudly contrasts them with the present when he enjoys both love and renown.

After this ringing affirmation of the artist’s existence, “Alles endet, was entstehet” counters that all human life and achievement nevertheless pass away. In the key of C-sharp minor, which represented darkness and death for Wolf, the opening prelude sounds like dry bones buried deep in the earth; the singer’s opening phrases also sink inexorably downward.

Like the first song, “Fühlt meine Seele” moves from longing to affirmation and again from minor to major. Wolf’s life was brightened and sustained by the enduring love of his mistress Melanie Köchert. The feverish chromatic melodies are very typical of his Tristan-esque musical language for passionate love.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Aus den hebräischen Gesängen,” Op. 25, No. 15; “Muttertraum,” Op. 40, No. 2; “Der Schatzgräber,” Op. 45, No. 1; “Melancholie,” Op. 74, No. 6

The year 1840 was Schumann’s Liederjahr or “Year of Song.” Though he had previously only dabbled in song composition, suddenly that February he became possessed by the excitement of setting words to music. By the beginning of 1841, he had written more than 130 songs, including four masterly song cycles—among them Dichterliebe.

This was also the year Schumann finally won his long battle with Clara Wieck’s obdurate father and married the immensely gifted pianist in September. Until that month, they were often separated, and Schumann’s songs were apparently a means of communicating his love and longing for her. The first of the three songs from 1840 we hear is “Aus den hebräischen Gesängen” (“From the Hebrew Melodies”) from the song collection Myrthen, which Schumann composed as a wedding gift to Clara (Myrten or “myrtles” are the flowers traditionally associated with weddings). The words are by Lord Byron in German translation. This mournful ode derives its heartbreaking beauty from the falling-tears motive permeating the piano part.

Schumann turned to many other non-German poets for his song texts. “Muttertraum” (“Mother’s Dream”) is one of four songs he wrote to poems by Hans Christian Andersen. This tender, yet disturbing scene of a mother watching over her beloved infant contains a typically macabre Andersen twist.

The grotesque “Der Schatzgräber” (“The Treasure Digger”) sets verse by Joseph von Eichendorff, one of Schumann’s favorite poets. By night, a man digs furiously for buried treasure hidden in a remote tomb, with wild cries of “Und wirst doch mein!” (“And you’ll be mine!”). Schumann captures his frenzied, greed-crazed activity with savage ascending scales in the piano.

Written in 1849—another prolific year—“Melancholie” is part of the Spanisches Liederspiel: a hybrid song-drama about two pairs of struggling lovers told in solo songs, duets, and ensembles based on Spanish poems in translation. Despite the desperation of this song—in which the fulfillment of love seems utterly hopeless—Liederspiel has a happy ending.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Prometheus,” D. 674; “Fahrt zum Hades,” D. 526; “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus,” D. 583

Franz Schubert established the German Lied as an important art form and then set a standard of excellence no one since has quite reached. He created more than 600 songs in a prodigious outpouring that sometimes saw him composing five songs in a single day. However, it is not the sheer number that matters, but rather the songs’ extraordinary quality and enormous emotional range.

Mr. Owens has selected relatively unknown Schubert songs inspired by classical mythology. “Prometheus” (1819) sets a poem by Goethe, Schubert’s favorite poet. Schubert scholar John Reed explains, “In the Napoleonic era, the Prometheus myth embodied the hopes and aspirations of an enlightened and revolutionary age. For Goethe ... and Schubert, Prometheus is not the tortured hero ... but the Hero as Artist-Creator ... confident in the power of his own mind and spirit, who can afford to turn away from the gods with indifference, even contempt.” In this dramatic song, Reed comments that “there are no concessions to ‘pure song’; the vocal line is fierce, angular, and fragmented.”

By contrast, “Fahrt zum Hades” (“Journey to Hades”) of 1817 reveals Schubert’s gift for lyrical melody at its most poignant. In this poem by Schubert’s close friend Johann Mayrhofer, the singer bids an anguished farewell to life as he is rowed across the river Lethe to the underworld. Reed describes the song as “a dramatic aria of solemn grandeur, tragic in tone and Classical in its combination of deep feeling and formal restraint.”

One of Schubert’s greatest songs, “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” (1817) sets an equally great poem by Schiller about the torments of condemned souls in Hades. Over and over, the phrase “ob noch nicht Vollendung sei” (“if the end is yet nigh”) is repeated as their many voices plead for release. In an ironic stroke, Schubert answers with “Ewigkeit” (“Eternity”) in a triumphant paean in C major—but for them, eternity means suffering without end. In Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s words, “the voice no longer has a ‘song melody’; the action is depicted more by the harmonic and rhythmic audacities of the piano than by the melody.”

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Beau soir”; “Fleur des blés”; “L’âme évaporée,” from Deux romances

The three songs by Claude Debussy we hear come from the beginning of his career when he was still a restless and rebellious student at the Paris Conservatoire. During these years of his late adolescence, he had begun to earn money as an accompanist for singers. In 1880, he became captivated by a very gifted and beautiful amateur soprano—Marie-Blanche Vasnier, the wife of a well-to-do bureaucrat. She and her husband opened their house to the precocious musician; for four years, he visited every day and did much of his composing there. Vasnier’s clear and agile voice prompted a flood of songwriting; they gave concerts together, and—though she was 14 years older—probably became lovers.

The earliest piece is “Beau soir” from 1880, a sweetly perfumed song of love, echoing the style of Jules Massenet (then the most popular French opera composer). It does not yet reveal the very original and iconoclastic style that Debussy would later develop. Its melody is lovely and symmetrical, the accompaniment subservient to the singer, and the rhythms firm and regular. “Fleur des blés” begins to show the rhythmic suppleness in setting the words that became so characteristic of Debussy’s music. Although “L’âme évaporée” was not published until 1891, its similar style suggests it is also an early song. Conventional and flowery in their verse, the poets were all contemporaries of Debussy; Paul Bourget, the writer of “Beau soir” and “L’âme évaporée,” was a personal friend.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“L’invitation au voyage”; “La vague et la cloche”

French composer Henri Duparc had one of the most tragic lives in musical history. While Mozart and Schubert died young, Duparc suffered the unkind fate of progressively losing his control over his body while living on to the age of 85, blind and paralyzed for decades. His career lasted only 17 years (from 1868 to 1885), when his undiagnosed nervous condition began to cripple his creative abilities. Today, he is known only for his 16 songs—but what songs they are!

Hypersensitive to all the arts—he was a talented amateur painter as well as musician—Duparc chose poetry by contemporary poets in the Parnassian and symbolist movements, some of whom were his personal friends. In musicologist Martin Cooper’s words, “his feeling for poetic atmosphere and his ability to communicate it in music was unequalled among his contemporaries.”

Duparc’s most famous song, “L’invitation au voyage,” was composed in 1870 and sets verse by the great symbolist Charles Baudelaire. Its piano accompaniment describes first the boat’s movement through the water, then in shimmering arpeggios the light of the setting sun gilding land and sea. The entranced refrain “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté” freezes for eternity a moment of perfect bliss.

Setting poetry by François Coppée, “La vague et la cloche” (“The Wave and the Bell”) of 1871 is the most uninhibitedly dramatic of Duparc’s songs. A stark, recitative-like vocal part is set above a spectacular accompaniment that captures all the horrific scenes of this nightmare vision. In fact, the composer originally conceived this song for voice and orchestra.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

As with the Wolf songs, the three songs in Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (composed between 1932 and 1933) were the final works of Maurice Ravel’s career. By 1932, his health was deteriorating, and writing down music was an arduous task. Born in Ciboure in the French Basque region bordering Spain, he always had an affinity for Spanish themes and musical styles, demonstrated in such works as Bolero, Rapsodie espagnole, and the opera L’heure espagnole.

The impetus was a commission for a French film version of Don Quichotte starring the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin as Cervantes’s elderly knight. What Ravel didn’t know was that the film’s producers had also given rival commissions to Jacques Ibert, Manuel de Falla, and two other composers. When Ravel was a little slow in finishing these songs, they turned to Ibert instead.

Set to verse by Paul Morand, each song is based on a different Spanish dance rhythm. The romantic, yet tongue-in-cheek “Chanson romanesque”—“romanesque” referring to a fable—follows the rhythm of the Cuban guajira in which the measures alternate irresistibly between two and three beats. Following the five-beat time of the Basque zortzico, “Chanson épique” is a noble prayer of great beauty in which the beloved Dulcinée is compared to the Madonna. “Chanson à boire” is a rollicking drinking song in the style of the Aragonese jota—a charming toast to life by a composer who was slowly losing his.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

“Les deux grenadiers”

A song of hand-on-heart patriotism in French by Richard Wagner: It seems hardly possible, but Wagner wrote a number of French songs during the discouraging and penurious years of 1839 to 1842 that he spent in Paris early in his career, struggling in vain to interest the French in his music and convince the Paris Opéra to stage his Rienzi. But despite the hardships, these were not lost years, for both Rienzi and much of Der fliegende Holländer were completed there.

In his efforts to attract supporters, Wagner wrote songs aimed at leading French singers of the day. “Les deux grenadiers,” written around 1840, is set to a French translation of a poem by Wagner’s countryman Heinrich Heine. (Interestingly, Schumann set the original German text shortly thereafter.) In this highly dramatic scene, two French veterans of the Napoleonic wars return home after long captivity in Russia to discover their cause is lost and their emperor now captive. To intensify the patriotic appeal, Wagner used the music of the “Marseillaise” for the last two stanzas.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert and the Pure Voice series are sponsored by the Jean & Jula Goldwurm Memorial Foundation in memory of Jula Goldwurm.