The performance by mezzo-soprano Leneida Crawford and pianist Eva Mengelkoch Friday night at Towson University was not your usual classical music event.
For one, it was a lieder recital - a rarity in Baltimore. For another, the concert had an obscure theme: works by various romantic German composers set to Adalbert von Chamisso's cycle of poems, "Frauenliebe und Leben" (A Woman's Life and Love). With images of the poet and composers projected behind the stage and with light, insightful commentary by the performers, this short evening of singing proved thoroughly enjoyable, even if the actual musical rewards were minimal.
If you're thinking of Robert Schumann's setting of the cycle, think again. While his is by far the most well known, several other composers gave Chamisso's text a go, and this concert included excerpts of settings by Franz Kugler and Franz Lachner, in addition to the venerable Schumann.
The featured attraction was a complete "Frauenliebe" cycle by Carl Loewe, an early Romantic hailed in some quarters as "the Schubert of North Germany." Loewe is perhaps best known for his rather lame take on Goethe's "Erlkonig." Compared with Franz Schubert's monumental vision of that poem, Loewe's effort is positively flat.
Not surprisingly, Loewe's Chamisso setting compares poorly with the noble masterwork of Schumann, and Crawford hinted as much when she warned the audience that, "some songs [in the Loewe] are better than others." That's putting it mildly; banal harmonic progressions, unimaginative melodies, and a generally atavistic style characterize many of the pieces. Sure, the songs are pretty, but that's about it. The same can be said for the Kugler and Lachner, even if they displayed a slightly more interesting harmonic language.
The problem is compounded by the text itself. Chamisso's exploration of the female psyche is simplistic at best and perhaps even offensive. The woman's "love and life" consists mainly of pining away for a man, becoming giddy when he expresses interest in her and expressing the deepest sorrow when he dies.
Nevertheless, Crawford and Mengelkoch presented the music with professionalism and care. Crawford possesses an easy, rich tone, and favors that quality of voice over other interpretative issues. While her diction sometimes lacked inflection and her dynamic range was limited, she provided thoughtful and musical moments. Mengelkoch proved a sensitive pianist with an especially wide range of soft colors. Soprano Ah Matejicka and horn player Mary Bisson provided able assistance in the Lachner setting.
A Stern tribute
Now 80 years old, Isaac Stern has been steadily losing his violin chops over the past couple decades. So to honor his birthday milestone, he wisely chose to share the stage with the stellar Emerson String Quartet and pianist Jonathan Biss in works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and William Bolcom at Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday night.
In Beethoven's sunny First Violin Sonata, it was hard to ignore the persistent problems in Stern's playing: a shaky bow, a scrappy sound and iffy intonation. The sensitive, natural lyricism of Biss' contribution saved the performance.
Stern yielded the stage to the Emerson for Mendelssohn's Second String Quartet. The piece owes great debt to Beethoven's last quartets, and the Emerson treated it with the same seriousness of purpose that those transcendental works demand. The loving, slow movement and first violinist Philip Setzer's dramatic cadenzas in the last movement merit particular mention.
Stern played second violin for the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winner William Bolcom's Piano Quintet, an accessible work that the audience seemed to enjoy as much as the performers. One theme in the first of its four movements bore a remarkable semblance - both in melodic contour and overall texture - to the opening theme of "The X-Files." While the middle movements were less musically rewarding, Bolcom redeemed himself in the raucous last movement. He's always had a knack for fusing popular rhythms and dances into a dissonant, modern framework, and this Latin-based "Rondo Furioso" grooved marvelously.
Above all, this new work was a fitting tribute to Stern, who, incidentally, helped in its commission. Beyond being one of the great violinists of the century, he has also been one of classical music's most dynamic advocates, both politically and musically. And even if his performance skills are slipping, he still knows his Samba rhythm, and he still knows what makes a good evening's entertainment.