Great Music—Buried Under Too Much Tone

United StatesUnited States Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Mozart, Gounod, Musorgsky, Lehmann, Fauré, Brahms, Strauss: Ben Wager (bass), Jeffrey Miller (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 18.1.2017. (BJ)

Vaughan Williams – Songs of Travel
Five Serenades:
Tchaikovsky – Don Juan’s Serenade, Op.38 No.1
Schubert – Ständchen D.957
Mozart – ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’ from Don Giovanni
Gounod – ‘Vous qui faites l’endormie’ from Faust
Musorgsky – ‘Serenade’ from Songs and Dances of Death
Liza Lehmann – ‘Myself when young’ and ‘As then the tulip for her morning sup’ from In a Persian Garden
Fauré – Les Berceaux, Op.23 No.1
Brahms – Von ewiger Liebe Op.43 No.1
R. Strauss – Zueignung Op.10 No.1

A 2009 graduate of the city’s Academy of Vocal Arts, Ben Wager is a young man possessed of a firmly supported bass voice, an appealing intensity of emotional expression, considerable aptitude for languages, and the willingness to put together imaginative programs, even if it may be suspected that a fair proportion of the impulse shaping this one may have come from his skillful pianist, Jeffrey Miller, the long-serving and distinguished principal accompanist, chorus master, and music director of Opera Delaware.

I was impressed last year by Wager’s handling of a couple of roles in that company’s fully-staged East Coast premiere of Franco Faccio’s long-neglected Amleto, and enjoyed hearing his rich tones in this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program. But, perhaps not surprisingly given the predominantly operatic emphasis of his career thus far, I also found the feeling of the whole recital altogether too big. As a devotee of extremes, I am usually won over by bigness of effect. Yet it seemed that most of the songs heard on this occasion, even the operatic ones including “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of tone lavished on them, and Wager’s repertoire of gesture, building to a wildly overdone level in Strauss’s moving but modestly scaled Zueignung, did not help.

A great deal of detail simply went for nothing as a result. Schubert’s Ständchen depends for its magical effect on a pointed interplay of texture and rhythms, but this sank without trace under the prevailing heaviness. In Brahms’s Von ewiger Liebe – one of the composer’s greatest Lieder, and one that my wife and I have long thought of as “our song” – the wonderful setting of the word “mancherlei,” like the grace of the shift from 3/4 to 6/8 meter halfway through, were similarly neglected. And while the opportunity to hear Vaughan Williams’s fine cycle in live performance was welcome in anticipation, I felt that the lack of smoothness in the singer’s phrasing took many of its wider intervals to the edge of the grotesque. If you heard Wager’s performance, listen to one of the excellent recordings available on CD – notably a superb recent one by the Canadian baritone David John Pike on the Signum label – and you will surely perceive how much more natural, how much more musical, a lighter approach makes the songs sound.

Bernard Jacobson

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