Bold music at Shriver

Recital, society stylish in sound

April 09, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The walls of Shriver Hall reverberated to some stylish music-making over the weekend. Bass-baritone Simon Estes gave a recital at the Johns Hopkins University venue Saturday night, followed 24 hours later by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

As a rule, age is not kind to singers; erosion of technique and tone is almost inevitable. So it wasn't surprising to hear some frayed edges as Estes, 64, offered songs and arias. But the voice has retained a remarkable amount of power and beauty, more than enough to give his recital the sound of authority.

Estes, presented by Hopkins' Office of Special Events and the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust, proved most compelling in operatic excerpts. To Banquo's aria from Verdi's Macbeth, he brought terrific dramatic and tonal weight, especially as he climbed the final melodic line. There was much to admire as well in the singer's warmly molded phrasing of Tu sul labbro from Verdi's Nabucco.

Although there was a loss of steam at the end of Mein Herr und Gott from Wagner's Lohengrin, the noble ring in the voice that has made Estes so valued in the Wagnerian repertoire for so long shone through.

Two of Mozart's concert arias for bass were effectively delivered, though soft notes tended to lose support, a problem that also cropped up elsewhere.

In selections from Schubert's Schwanengesang, the singer's interpretive warmth commanded respect. He summoned considerable vocal richness in the crowning crescendo of In der Ferne and the bold lines of Der Atlas.

Estes was less impressive in a group of spirituals (other artists find more vivid nuances in this timeless repertoire) and two show tunes.

Although Without a Song was given a stirring treatment, some of the vocalism turned gravely. Climb Ev'ry Mountain sounded oddly matter-of-fact, with monotonic phrasing and a brisk, square tempo. What Estes was missing in that song became obvious when pianist Julius Tilghman took over the tune for 16 bars and proceeded to infuse it with all sorts of subtle touches.

At the start of the evening, Tilghman tended to over-pedal and had a few articulation slips, but his playing grew increasingly sensitive and confident.

For the Shriver Hall Concert Series, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center focused on two of the most ardently lyrical pieces for strings - Schubert's C major Quintet and Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night).

Now a century old, the Schoenberg score infuriated many of its first listeners, who thought the composer had gone too far with Wagnerian harmony and created an impossibly diffuse, ugly work. Later, the same sort of people would never forgive Schoenberg for abandoning Wagnerian harmony entirely to create an impossibly diffuse, ugly style known as 12-tone music, instead of writing more rapturously beautiful things like Transfigured Night.

It's possible to hear in Transfigured Night tiny foretastes of where the composer would eventually be headed. But here, knowing that Schubert was going to follow, it was easier to think about vestiges of the past that haunt this music.

In this context, Transfigured Night seemed like the ultimate extension of Schubertian beauty, breadth and introspection - at least in the luminous, technically polished performance by violinists Ida Kavafian and Ani Kavafian, violists Roberto Diaz and Paul Neubauer and cellists Fred Sherry and Ronald Thomas.

The Kavafian sisters, Diaz, Sherry and Thomas gave an equally satisfying account of Schubert's Quintet, revealing the music's dark side as poetically as its glistening one. There was, as in the Schoenberg work, a remarkable consistency of intonation and a superb ability to articulate gradations of dynamics. Phrasing in both pieces was deeply considered, directly communicative.

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