Recital Review

Nancy Walker: Vocal Feast Had a Hilarious Dessert

January 27, 2008 - Greensboro, NC:

Soprano Nancy Walker's vocal recital, held in the Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina Greensboro, had a lot going for it. Many of the selections were less well-known and all of the piano parts were far from negligible. This recital was a model for documentation. The songs are in four languages, German, Italian, Spanish, and English, and the program gave the original texts AND translations in full. Hall lighting was raised enough to allow the texts to be followed. The absence of program notes was lessened by brief, germane comments from Walker or her able pianist, Tim Lindeman.

The first three songs were settings of German texts. "Die junge Nonne" ("The Young Nun") by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was composed around March 3, 1825 (recorded in soprano Sophie Muller's diary). Schubert takes the pietistic verses of Roman Catholic poet Jakob Nikolaus Craigher and transforms their sentimental religiosity into one of the composer's most dramatic songs with a stormy keyboard underpinning. The measured, slow pace and tone of "Gebet" ("Prayer") by Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) was a complete contrast. The next composer was Mahler — Alma (1879-1964) — not her first husband Gustav. Her text, "Ekstase" ("Ecstasy") by Otto J. Bierbaum, was more spiritually certain than most used by Gustav Mahler. The soul vanishes into heaven's light like "the morning's red blush disappears" into the day. Alma's piano part is untroubled and triumphant.

All of the songs of Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) I have heard have been in German so three selections from Opus 82 in Italian were a surprise to me. Walker pointed out these songs, despite their late opus number, are clearly early with the spirit of Mozart hovering over them. One could imagine "L'amante impaziente" ("The impatient lover") and "Dimmi, ben mio" ("Tell me my beloved") being sung by the Cherubini of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. "T'intendo, si, mio cor" (I hear you, oh my heart"), in which the singer asks his heart to not betray his feelings, is a text more apt of Beethoven himself.

Nancy Walker sang these songs with a bright, penetrating voice that was evenly supported across its range. Her diction throughout the recital was exemplary as was her close attention to the context and the meaning of the words. Pitch control was firmly focused. Tim Lindeman's fine sounding Steinway piano had its lid on the short stick while he was accompanying. He avoided covering Walker's voice while skillfully adjusting expressive dynamics and phrasing to support her text.

The first half of the recital ended with a tantalizing solo, "Allegro vivace" from Beethoven's Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 31/1. Lindeman said this sonata was too seldom performed and showed the composer "at his most quirky." With the Steinway's lid fully raised, Lindeman turned in a fine performance, making the most of the composer's humor and twists and turns.

There was no lack of atmosphere or national character in the artists' performance of Siete Canciones Populares Españolas (Seven Popular Spanish Songs) of Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). Lovers of the composer's Three-Cornered Hat ballet would have recognized the theme to the first song, "El Paño Moruno" ("The Moorish Cloth"). The florid vocal line is set against the piano's evocation of a strumming guitar. There are echoes of the old aphorism about "people who live in glass houses" in "Sequidilla Murciana" ("Sequidilla from Murcia"). "Asturian" is a heart-felt lover's lament. The rhythm of "Jota" suggested some of the composer's vigorous orchestral setting El Amor Brujo. "Nana" is a gentle, short lullaby while "Canción" ("Song") is a virtually unaltered folksong. The piano evokes insistent guitar accompaniment in the fiery, wrenching final song, "Polo."

Walker sang these Spanish songs with a refined sense of atmosphere, bringing out buried emotions. Lindeman's piano playing captured Falla's incessant rhythms or suggestion of rapidly plucked guitar strings. Any doubts about the reserve power of Walker's voice were blown away as she gave it her all in "Polo."

The aria "Sea Air" from A Streetcar Named Desire from André Previn (b.1930) gave listeners a rare chance to hear Walker in opera. The piece takes place as the now completely delusional Blanche awaits her "gentleman caller" while imagining a Romantic death at sea. In the opera, her caller is a doctor who will take her to a sanatorium. Walker conjured up an atmosphere of someone lost in their fantasies.

Walker said that Lari Laitman (b.1955) was one of the most prolific of contemporary American composers. Laitman's setting of Four [Emily] Dickinson Songs, "Will there really be a Morning," "I'm Nobody," "She died," and "If I…," were effective and intriguing. Walker captured their mood perfectly.

Walker and Lindeman brought the house down with an aptly over-the-top performance of "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise" by William Bolcom (b. 1938). Bolcom composed this hilarious scena for his wife, Joan Morris. Walker's interpretation compared favorably with two performances by Morris & Bolcom and another by Susan Graham I have heard. It is always a sure crowd-pleaser.