Eclectic Song Recital with Masterly Rachmaninoff

United StatesUnited States Copland, Schubert, Poulenc, Smith, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky: Sarah Shafer (soprano), Lydia Brown (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 20.1.2015 (BJ)

Copland: Selections from Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson:
Nature, the gentlest mother
Why do they shut me out of heaven?
Heart, we will forget him
Sleep is supposed to be
Schubert: Selections from Vier gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister:
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Heiss mich nicht reden
So lass mich scheinen
Poulenc: Fiançailles pour rire
Kile Smith: Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Rachmaninoff: Six Romances, Op. 38
Stravinsky: The Owl and the Pussy Cat; Pastorale


It was in Rachmaninoff’s Six Romances that Sarah Shafer decisively justified the many golden opinions I have encountered of this young American soprano’s talent. I am not qualified to pass judgement on her pronunciation of the songs’ diversely sourced Russian texts, but in every other respect this was a performance of the highest merit. Skillfully supported by pianist Lydia Brown, the singer’s glowing tone, her command of an expressive range from characteristic Russian melancholy to light humor, and her unexaggerated but attractively sympathetic platform manner combined to produce a masterly account of this fine music.

There had already been signs of such pleasures to come in Shafer’s performance of a group of Hopkins settings by the gifted local composer Kile Smith (“Spring and Fall,” “As kingfishers catch fire,” and “Henry Purcell”). In his program note, Smith declared Hopkins to be his favorite poet. That is an enthusiasm I do not share—I found these texts a tad pretentious compared with the simple charm and unforced eloquence of the verses by Louise de Vilmorin that Poulenc set in his Fiançailles pour rire, heard just before intermission. But Smith has certainly captured his poet’s idiosyncratic metrics and his predictably unpredictable way with words to vivid effect—and beyond the end of his short cycle’s verbal end, he has achieved a compellingly beautiful and highly personal piano postlude that Ms Brown played no less compellingly.

By the end of this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program, Ms. Shafer was comprehensively “in the vein,” and she gave us a delightfully witty rendering of Stravinsky’s (and Edward Lear’s) The Owl and the Pussy Cat, and a warm and graceful one of the composer’s wordless Pastorale. The first half of the recital, I must confess, found me ill attuned to Ms. Shafer’s singing. Whereas in the evening’s later Rachmaninoff she launched high notes that were voluminous and richly toned without ever crossing the boundary into harshness, her performances of Copland and Schubert were those of a singer who had not yet adjusted to the hall’s (generally agreeable) acoustics, and I found some of her top notes here distressing to the point of aural pain, while in the lower registers her tone did not seem fully focused. Things got better in the Poulenc, as all along I had hoped and guessed they would. And with those splendid performances of Smith, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky after intermission, my reservations could happily be consigned to oblivion.

Bernard Jacobson