Testaments: an exceptional evening of song from the Brooklyn Art Song Society

United StatesUnited States Various: Michael Brofman (piano), Stanichka Dimitrova (violin), Michael Kelly (baritone), Brian Mextorf (baritone), Alexandra Nowakowski (soprano), Sofia Nowik (cello), Renate Rohlfing (piano). Brooklyn Art Song Society, First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, Brooklyn, 4.2.2022. (RP)

Testaments © Joan Chiverton

Wolf – Michelangelo-Lieder

Britten – Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74

Shostakovich – Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, Op.127

This was a superb concert from the Brooklyn Art Song Society. Entitled ‘Testaments’, it was the fifth in BASS’s Beginnings, Middles and Ends series which seeks to explore through song the moments that make up our lives. The imponderables – love, death, immortality – were probed in outstanding performances of extraordinary works by Wolf, Britten and Shostakovich.

Composed in March 1897, the three Michelangelo-Lieder were the last compositions that Wolf completed before descending into mental illness. Although the earliest songs on the program, they were the most daring and modern, especially in Wolf’s adventurous forays into chromaticism. It is to be expected with Britten and Shostakovich, but in the Michelangelo-Lieder the chromaticism comes as something shocking.

Brian Mextorf (baritone), Michael Kelly (baritone), Stanichka Dimitrova (violin), Alexandra Nowakowski (soprano), Renate Rohlfing (piano) & Sofia Nowik (cello)

Wolf was of the opinion that his brooding, intense pieces were best sung by a low male voice, with its ability to express not only violence but also gravitas and great tenderness. Brian Mextorf certainly fit the bill with his powerful, forthright baritone.

Tenderness was little called for, however, in these three melancholy Wolf songs or, for that matter, the rest of the program. But in the second one, ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’, there was a moment when Mextorf sang of human beings with their joys and sorrows and revealed the more muted, gentler colors of his vocal palette. The rest of the time, one sat enthralled by the vibrant column of sound which so vividly depicted the sadness, longing and despair in Michelangelo’s poems.

Inspired by his partner, Peter Pears, Britten composed many works for tenor, but he also created significant ones for the baritone voice. Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, composed in 1965, was dedicated to and first performed by the legendary Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, for whom Britten had composed the baritone part in the War Requiem. Pears, nonetheless, played his part in the cycle’s creation by choosing the 14 brief texts by Blake that Britten set to music.

The words selected by Pears – dark, mysterious and often tinged with cruelty – inspired Britten to compose his most profound song cycle. Lasting over 20 minutes, the cycle is performed without any breaks, with the texts arranged so that each proverb either anticipates or reflects upon an individual piece. Musically, this is Britten the innovator: the cycle contains examples of his use of twelve-tone techniques, free metrical alignment and unmeasured notation.

Baritone Michael Kelly’s performance of the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake was as mesmerizing as it was emotionally devastating. His voice dripped with irony as he sang Proverb II – ‘Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of religion’ – and the combination of lightness and horror that he instilled into ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’ made the plight of the young lad heart-wrenching.

In a whisper, Kelly summoned the mystery and terror of ‘The Tyger’, one of Blake’s most famous poems. As a singing philosopher, Kelly was without peer in ‘The Fly’ and ‘Proverb7’ with its imagery of infinity in a grain of sand or a flower. As he had in the Wolf, Michael Brofman, BASS’s founder and artistic director, proved a fine collaborator.

Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok were the last of three works that he composed for the great Galina Vishnevskaya. She and her husband, the renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, were not only intimate friends of the Soviet composer but also closely associated with Britten. The soprano part in the War Requiem was composed for Vishnevskaya, although Soviet authorities prevented her from singing in its premiere in 1962.

Blok wrote in the Russian Symbolism style. An early supporter of the Russian Revolution which seemed the fulfillment of his apocalyptic view of life, he quickly became disillusioned with it before his death at the age of 41 in 1921. Composed in 1967, Shostakovich’s setting of seven of Blok’s poems similarly offers a complex narrative on the composer’s feelings about the Soviet Union.

Together with violinist Stanichka Dimitrova, cellist Sofia Nowik and pianist Renate Rohlfing, soprano Alexandra Nowakowski gave an outstanding performance of these remarkable songs. At full cry, as in ‘Gamayan, the Bird of Prophesy’, Nowakowski’s intense vibrato propelled the horrors of death and destruction throughout the hall. Her voice was wild and furious in ‘The Storm’; only in ‘We Were Together’ and ‘Music’ did Nowakowski have the opportunity to display her lyrical gifts. Her connection with the text and music were so complete that it was hard to separate the singer from the song.

The final one, ‘Music’, is a lyrical prayer offering the sounds of humans to Our Lady, the Sovereign of the Universe. The poet writes that while the music of mere mortals cannot compare to that of the divine, it is filled with pain, death and passion, as was every sound heard in this truly exceptional evening of song. It will become available on BASS’s Digital Concert Hall on 21 February.

Rick Perdian

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