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Luca Pisaroni makes his San Francisco recital debut with unfamiliar repertoire

Portrait of the composer Johann Firedrich Reichardt
from Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night at the Nourse Theater baritone Luca Pisaroni made his San Francisco recital debut in the Vocal Series of the 2013–2014 San Francisco Performances (SFP) season. Pisaroni may be better known for the diversity of his operatic roles; but his recital performance suggested that he is equally interested in exploring the varied aspects of the art song repertoire, without worrying about wandering into unfamiliar territory. The result was a program of selections by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Johannes Brahms, and Franz Liszt, most of which were probably unfamiliar for most of the audience. His accompanist for this adventurous journey was pianist Wolfram Rieger, familiar to many members of that audience for his past appearances with Barbara Bonney, Matthias Goerne, and, most recently, Thomas Hampson.

The program began with Italian texts set by two German composers. The opening selection was Beethoven’s “La partenza,” a setting of a short poem by Pietro Metastasio bidding farewell to the city of Nice composed in 1795 and not published during the composer’s lifetime. This was followed by three songs composed during the first decade of the nineteenth century, only two of which were published as part of the Opus 82 collection of four ariettas and one duet. All four of these pieces were brief and not particularly distinguished. However, Pisaroni gave them expressive interpretations and concluded Beethoven’s first setting of Metastasio’s “L’amante impatiente” (the impatient lover), from the Opus 82 collection, with an amusing dramatic depiction of impatience.

Like Beethoven, Reichardt spanned the transition from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century. At the age of 23 he became kapellmeister for Frederick the Great in 1775; and, over the course of his life, his vocal repertoire was far more extensive than Beethoven’s. In 1798 he published settings of sonnets and songs by Petrarch that seems to have numbered into the hundreds. Pisaroni performed seven of these, probably taken from the recent edition of eight edited by Martin Burns. These are all short pieces that tend to capture a single state of mind in a relatively brief gesture. (Petrarch’s sonnets tend not to have the “mood shift” between the first eight lines and the last six that we encounter in William Shakespeare.) Here, again, Pisaroni gave an expressive account of these unfamiliar studies on a miniature scale.

More substance could be found in the five songs Brahms collected for his Opus 72. The poems that Brahms collected share a common theme of melancholic memory. As might be expected, they provided Rieger with an opportunity to match Pisaroni’s expressiveness with his own attentiveness to Brahms’ keyboard style. These songs, again, were brief, giving relatively straightforward accounts of the text. However, there was more emotional intensity to the underlying logic of the music; and the impact was heightened through the more shared efforts of vocalist and pianist.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to songs by Liszt. Needless to say, there was a fair amount of keyboard work on display for these selections, as there had been for those by Brahms. Liszt also tended to work on larger durational scales than those of any of the songs in the first half of the program. Unfortunately, as is often the case with his instrumental music, more was not always better. Often it seemed as if Liszt was making his point with the opening lines of the poem and then continuing only to account for the remainder of the text. Perhaps the most interesting of Pisaroni’s selections was “Die drei Zigeuner” (the three gypsies), which allowed Liszt to indulge in the sorts of riffs one encounters in his Hungarian rhapsodies.

Pisaroni brought a bit more familiarity to his only encore, but in a somewhat unusual way. He sang one more of Liszt’s songs, the setting of Ferdinand Freiligrath’s poem “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst!” (O love, so long as you can). Liszt would later refashion this setting into one of his best-known works for solo piano, the third of the pieces he collected under the title Liebesträume (dreams of love).

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