Susan Graham ponders a woman’s life with strength and charm at Shriver Hall

Mon Apr 24, 2017 at 2:17 pm

Susan Graham performed a recital Sunday at Shriver Hall in Baltimore. File photo: Matthew Cosgrove

A weekend crammed full of excellent musical performances closed Sunday evening with a recital by Susan Graham at Shriver Hall in Baltimore. The American mezzo-soprano, who was the best part of Washington National Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in February, deployed all of her considerable vocal power and Southern charm in a program of songs organized on the theme of women’s lives and loves.

In her recent lieder concerts Grahams has circled around the same repertory, approaching it in different ways. She sang Schumann’s short song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben in 2015, for the 25th anniversary of Vocal Arts DC. Then the connection was that Graham had recently become engaged and modeled her own ring as she sang “Du ring an meinem Finger.” Here she took the cycle’s eight songs as points of departure for eight phases in a woman’s life, complementing each of them with two or three other songs related by text.

Graham’s voice was in top form as she dug into this material with audible delight. It is a broad voice, given to some scooping and passionate imprecision, all the more noticeable in a week that included the more laser-tooled sound of Anne Schwanewilms. The program theme allowed Graham to include more of the French songs that are her specialty, due to both her excellent French pronunciation and her understanding of that delicate style.

The greatest achievements of Gabriel Fauré as a composer are his song miniatures, perfectly polished gems that sparkle in the right light. Graham gave his “Chanson d’amour” and “Au bord de l’eau” the most subtle coloring, a sort of murmuring intensity that felt almost improvised. She likewise luxuriated in Henri Duparc’s ecstatic “Phidylé” and exulted in the intimate confessions of Debussy’s “La chevelure,” both part of the section of the program about “what happens after the wedding,” as Graham said with a wink during her introductory remarks.

Pianist Malcolm Martineau, who also accompanied Schwanewilms on Thursday, changed the scope of his sound at the keyboard, scaled to Graham’s larger voice but playing with the same degree of subtlety. In Grieg’s “Møte” and “Jeg elsker Dig,” for example, he helped to power some blossoming crescendos in Graham’s lines, and he evoked a whole world of bustling nature in the flurrying notes, trills, and flighty runs of Ture Rangström’s “Melodi.”

Some of the songs felt shoehorned into the program, as it also included songs sung by a man to a woman (like Fauré’s “Chanson d’amour”) and likely by a man to another man (Ned Rorem’s aphoristic setting of Walt Whitman’s “O you whom I often and silently come”). The shifting of styles in each section could be jarring as well, as the cocktail piano sounds of John Dankworth’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” rubbed elbows with Mahler and Strauss.

Encores included Graham’s standard offering, Reynaldo Hahn’s pleasing “À Chloris,” as well as a brief but emotional tribute to mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson, who lost a long battle with cancer last week. The latter was in the form of the hymn “He Will Gather Us Around” from Dead Man Walking, associated with the character of Sister Helen, a role that Graham and Jepson shared at the opera’s 2000 premiere in San Francisco.

Breaking up the Schumann set diluted most of the dramatic arc’s potential, but it also encouraged Graham to search for more individual interpretations of each song. She gave a more improvisatory character of “Ich kann’s nicht fassen” and drew out an exciting accelerando in the “Süsser Freund.” At the same time, the placement of the first and last song of the cycle as the opening and conclusion of an entire concert invited one to think again about the music the pianist plays in both songs, uniting the wonder of first love with the inevitable loss of that love.

The next concert sponsored by the Shriver Hall series will feature the Dover Quartet 3 p.m. Saturday at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. shriverconcerts.org; 410-516-7164.


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