It was late afternoon when Duke's Liederabend began, and it was just barely evening when it ended, but there were no complainers in the Nelson Music Room crowd as soprano Penelope Jensen, mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Greene, and pianist R. Larry Todd served up a generous feast of music for solo piano and for voice (duets and solo pieces, one unaccompanied) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) and his sister, Fanny Hensel (1805-47).
Todd is a superb pianist who happens also to be perhaps the leading Mendelssohn scholar of our time (or any time, really); alternately one might say that he's an academician who can play the piano. Either way, the result is that we get the best of both worlds during his (alas!) relatively rare concert appearances. On this occasion, he began and ended the program with a bit of creative work of his own, beyond the re-creative work one might have expected: for openers, he premiered a "Lied ohne Worte" ("Song without Words") in E Flat that he'd reconstructed from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Mendelssohn published a slew of these things, but this particular one was left incomplete. Todd's realization sounded pretty much like the better-known ones, which is to say that it seemed completely in keeping with Mendelssohn's style. The performance was wonderful, and the response was enthusiastic – but it would have been nice to have heard it again, right away.
The concert ended with a sort of Mendelssohnian improvisation (by Todd) on a theme from the incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, tacked onto the beginning of a classy little duet by Fanny Hensel composed when brother Felix was preparing for another trip to England. "Sleep sweetly" was its title, and it served as a fine cap to a superb and revealing afternoon of song, enlivened along the way by several other short piano pieces.
Todd explained that recent scholarship has revealed more of the work of Fanny Hensel than we'd ever imagined. Yes, it was known that Felix published a number of her pieces, claiming them as his own, and some had speculated that she might have been a comparably fine composer; but now, Todd told us, the extent of her work has come to light: there are, he said, some 460 compositions, some of which were heard on this concert. He also noted that this program would indeed have been impossible just a few years ago. All this is pretty exciting for musicology, I must admit – and the fact that the music was consistently fine and rewarding made it all the more enjoyable.
A group of duets by Mendelssohn got things underway for the singers; in these mostly late works the two voices blended and complemented each other ideally, revealing both singers to be in top form. We've been fortunate to hear Jensen here fairly often, since she lives in the Triangle, but Greene, after a short stint at UNC, has been based in Boone, at ASU, so her regional appearances have been far fewer. The loss has been ours. From Mahler to Mendelssohn she is a vocal force of nature – this is, quite simply, a superb mezzo-soprano voice (or alto voice, really, and with a true contralto chest-voice). Put the two singers together with Todd providing the continuum and the results were memorable, indeed!
A substantial and highly effective Nocturne in G minor by Hensel led to a group of Mendelssohn Lieder sung by Greene. These included some of the afternoon's best-known vocal works, although to tell the truth even songs like the "Hexenlied" and the "Venetianisches Gondellied" turn up rarely nowadays – in part because well-crafted voice recitals remain on the endangered species list.... The singer was in radiant form, and she brought the songs to vibrant life, adding just enough acting to help drive home the drama.
An Allegro in A and a glowing Adagio in E-Flat, both by Hensel, bracketed a group of seven songs by the same composer. These spanned an 18-year period and were all the more remarkable for that, since they didn't betray any significant weaknesses or formulaic writing at any point. Jensen warmed to these rapidly and sang with the grace and artistry that has long distinguished her most intimate musical work.
The last group of duets was by Hensel. Todd had suggested that there were many parallels and common points in the afternoon's offerings, and it's a fact that one would have been hard-pressed to guess which composer did which pieces, so of a piece (in a manner of speaking) they were. So, too, the singers were of one accord, artistically, as the program wound to a close. Mendelssohn had the last official word, in the form of an F Major "Song without Words," but there was enough clapping and (restrained) yelling from the mostly-standing crowd to elicit that aforementioned Hensel duet, which sent us all on our way with songs in our hearts and sweetness in the air.
Publication of some or all of the house recording of the program would be most welcome.
PS Our colleague Marvin J. Ward (who is now Executive Editor of CVNewEng) will take me to task if I don't mention the program, which was ideal for a recital of this type – there were complete texts and translations, printed on substantial paper and laid out so as to avoid any page-turns during individual songs. The poets were identified and their dates were provided. The translations weren't credited, but there was a line thanking Jacqueline Waeber for her help with the Hensel numbers.