United States Schubert: Susanna Phillips (soprano), Eric Owens (bass-baritone), Jennifer Montone (horn), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Myra Huang (piano) Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA. 24.3.2015 (BJ)
[elbat]Owens/Montone:,Auf dem Strom
Phillips:,Die Männer sind méchant
,Gretchen am Spinnrade
,Du bist die Ruh
,Bei dir allein
,Fahrt zum Hades
,Auf der Danau
,An die Musik
Phillips/Morales:,Der Hirt auf dem Felsen
Life and art came movingly and memorably together at this recital of Schubert songs. It was not until after intermission that we understood quite how this was.
Given the high expectations with which the performance of such great music by such distinguished artists had been awaited, the first half of the concert was perhaps a tad disappointing. Eric Owens, with Jennifer Montone in characteristically strong support, sang Auf dem Strom—one of the most gorgeous songs Schubert ever wrote, and itself constituting a memorial tribute to Beethoven, the funeral march theme from whose Eroica Symphony it quotes. He sang well enough, but the transposition down from E major to C major slightly dimmed the radiance of the music, and there also seemed to be something uncommunicative about the singer’s demeanor. His performances of Prometheus, Fahrt zum Hades, and Gruppe aus dem Tartarus were more forthcoming in manner, though still not as overwhelmingly eloquent as some performances I have heard from him in the past.
Meanwhile, in her first group, Susanna Phillips seemed similarly inhibited. Her line was tentative, and was not helped by Myra Huang’s meticulous but somewhat too muted piano-playing. And in Gretchen am Spinnrade, while the phrase “und ach, sein Kuss” (“and ah, his kiss!”) certainly demands a good strong high note for its last word, it surely calls for something else beyond that. The moment marks the protagonist’s glimpse of eternity, but instead of any hint of such illumination, we were vouchsafed nothing beyond the said good strong high note.
Then, in the second half of the program, everything changed, and much was explained. The Susanna Phillips who came out and sang that lovely song Viola sounded like a quite different singer from the one we had heard before. The tone was fuller, the line far more firmly supported, and the whole range of expression admirably rich and engaging. And when Owens came back on stage, he took five minutes to explain to the audience what was behind the dejected mood in which he had begun the evening, and the tears that he could be seen shedding. Not much more than an hour before the concert started, he had learned that Maria Radner, the celebrated contralto whom he and it appears everyone else who knew her loved, had been one of the victims, with her husband and baby, of the apparently deliberate destruction of the Germanwings flight that crashed the other day in the French Alps.
In the circumstances, Owens could have been forgiven for singing a good deal less well than he actually did. For the rest of the evening, he was close to his best—and it seemed no less than appropriate that his command of the melody in An die Musik, with its gratitude for music’s power to transport the singer through “grey hours” to “a better world,” should be a shade approximate. (In less dire but still emotion-laden circumstances, the great Lotte Lehmann, at her farewell recital in New York’s Town Hall back in 1951, broke down in tears just before reaching the last line of the song, and her pianist, Paul Ulanowsky, had to jump in suddenly and play the remaining notes of the melody.)
After all the heartbreaking feelings evoked by the rest of this beautifully and almost prophetically dseigned program, its conclusion, with a sparkling performance of Der Hirt auf dem Felsen by Susanna Phillips with clarinetist Ricardo Morales and a now more assertive Myra Huang, came as a benison. We were left to go home reasonably cheerful, but reflecting on what a great contemporary composer Schubert is.