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Old First Concerts presents a song recital of unfamiliar repertoire

1907 portrait of Reynaldo Hahn
by Lucie Lambert, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The soloist for last night’s Old First Concerts recital at Old First Church was baritone Zachary Gordin, accompanied by pianist Bryan Nies. The title of the program was L’heure exquise: Songs of Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn was born in Caracas (Venezuela) in 1874; but his family moved to Paris when he was three years old. He would spend the rest of his life there, becoming a naturalized French citizen in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

As the Wikipedia page listing his compositions shows, Hahn was a prolific composer; but today he is best known for his contributions to the art song repertoire. He was also a popular café pianist; and some claim he cultivated the prototypical image of that particularly setting by playing with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip. While his songs may be the major substance of his legacy, they are not performed anywhere near as frequently as they ought to be.

Hahn’s songs occupied only the second half of Nies’ recital. However, this included his earliest work in this genre, the Chansons grises (grey songs) cycle setting seven poems by Paul Verlaine, one of which was the poem that provided the title of the program for the evening. Hahn began this collection at the age of twelve and worked on it for three years. This was preceded by a selection of seven individual songs, two of which were again by Verlaine, along with texts by other familiar authors, such as Leconte de Lisle and Alphonse Daudet.

The texts selected for last night’s recital suggest that Hahn had a strong preference for imagery, using his music to reinforce the visual evocations of the words. Unfortunately, that sense of imagery did not always come across particularly effectively last night. While Nies tended to be consistent in finding and executing the proper touch for each song, Gordin did not seem particularly comfortable with the words. His approach to pronunciation often missed critical rhyming sonorities in the text, and there were even instances in which he did not get the words themselves correctly. Thus, while his rhetoric went a long way to suggest what these songs could be, his technique did not always rise to the level of what they actually were.

He also made the curious decision to precede the intermission with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The House of Life. This is a setting of six sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As Nies observed in some brief prefatory remarks, these seem to have been selected arbitrarily; but the result was a song cycle that wove them together into an extended meditation on love and death, each of which is represented by a recurring motif.

The setting of sonnets goes back at least as far as Claudio Monteverdi. However, because the texts must conform to such rigid structures, they tend to present some of the greatest challenges to the composer. Thus, many from Monteverdi to Benjamin Britten have tended to focus on the semantics, allowing the music to work out its own structures. This was the approach that Vaughan Williams took in The House of Life; and, in many respects, he seemed to work just as well with these highly structured texts as he did with the far freer texts of Walt Whitman.

However, for all the clarity of Vaughan Williams’ musical language, it seemed as if Gordin could never quite get his head around Rossetti’s words. Nies was on far more secure ground, since, in many respects, his “job” was to maintain the dialectic between those motifs of love and death. However, Rossetti’s verbal approach to those themes involved considerable subtlety in choices of words; and that subtlety seemed to be lost in Gordin’s interpretation.

The result was an evening rich in possibilities for discovering new approaches to art song; but, in order to be fulfilled, those possibilities needed far more comprehending approaches to interpretation than last night’s performances provided.

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