This afternoon concert at the Nelson Music Room was an enchanting delight entitled "Romantic Highs: Songs of Love and Loss by Strauss, Wolf and Marx." The program was divided into three sections: "Death and Peace," "Parting and Loss," and "Optimistic Love." Long-time musicology professor at Duke University Brian Gilliam introduced the program with comments on the scope and style of the three featured composers, all active in the late Romantic era.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) are well-known for their rich output of solo songs exploring chromaticism, embellished harmony, and expressive creativity. The lesser known Joseph Marx (1882-1964) was an Austrian composer who wrote more than 150 Lieder as well as orchestral pieces and chamber music. His style generally holds to tonality and has some elements of impressionistic lyricism.
The performing artists were mezzo-soprano Sandra Cotton and collaborating pianist Catherine Hamner. Cotton is a member of the music faculty at Duke University, where she teaches studio voice, the physiology of singing, class voice, diction, and musical theater performance. She has been active in the Durham music scene and beyond since moving here in 2007. Hamner earned her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees at UNC-Chapel Hill and pursued further studies at FSU and in Europe. The former accompanist and artistic director of the National Opera Company is widely recognized and in demand as a skilled collaborative pianist.
The opening song was "Allerseelen" (All Souls Day), with poetry by Hermann von Gilm (1812-1864) and music by Strauss. This song about flowers in the fall reminding one of what once was in May might well have been sung by the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. The rich and warm harmonies in the accompaniment provided a lush bed for the soaring melody above. It was a beautiful example of collaborative achievement by Cotton and Hamner.
Marx's "Wanderers Nachtlied" (Wanderer's Night Song), a setting of a short verse by Goethe, is essentially a prayer for peace. Cotton used subtle dynamics and other expressive techniques to communicate the plea of the poem.
Wolf put his touch on another poem from Goethe, "Anakreons Grab" (Anacreon's Grave). With soft chords in the piano and a gentle calm in the soprano melody, the composer expresses grief at the poet's grave.
Closing the "Death and Peace: portion of the program was Strauss' setting of Karl Friedrich Henckell's poem "Ruhe, meine Seele" (Rest, My Soul). This extremely intense song could be a page torn from Elektra. It opens with a very harsh chord played fortissimo and doesn't let up until the song reaches the poet's words, "rest, rest, my soul, and forget what is threatening you!" Strauss must have felt this one intensely. Hamner and Cotton's performance was powerful and convincing.
The middle collection of songs, "Parting and Loss," began with "Die Verlassene" (The Forsaken One), Marx's setting of a poem by Paul Heyse. Soft, gentle arpeggios accompany this sad song of lost love.
Next, Cotton shaped her beautiful voice around the bitter sadness of an abandoned maiden in Wolf's setting of Eduard Mörike's "Das verlassene Mägdlein" (The Abandoned Maiden). Each song had its own unique character, and these performing artists, with artful and knowledgeable musical technique, brought each song to true life.
Adolf Friedrich von Schack's poem, "Lob des Leidens" (In Praise of Sorrow), with music of Strauss, was another especially good example of the effectiveness of sensitive collaboration by pianist and vocal artist in Lieder performance. The agreeable conversation between the two was marvelous. The last note sung by the vocaliist, ending with an abrupt staccato, is echoed in the piano and underscores the poet's thought on departing.
The third collection of songs, under the heading of "Optimistic Love," began with Marx's "Am Fenster" (At the Window), its poem by Paul Heyse. Both the poem and the musical setting are visually descriptive and rhapsodic.
The concert concluded with unrestrained excitement and joy of anticipation in Otto Julius Bierbaum's poem "Schlagende Herzen" (Beating Hearts), set to music by Strauss. The poem and the music describe the beating of the boy's heart as he rushes to her in the first two verses, and the third reflects the girl's beating heart as she anticipates his arrival.
What a delightful ending to such an enjoyable concert! The songs were well-chosen and grouped. The performers were knowledgeable and skilled. The comments by Professor Gilliam were helpful and added much to the enjoyment of the recital. Music allows us to experience the strong emotions outlined in this program from different perspectives, and that in turn enabled us to recognize here the commonality of all who share these feelings, facilitating our ability to live together better.