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Soprano Aurélie Veruni explores Rachmaninoff’s vocal repertoire at SFCM

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Soprano Aurélie Veruni, currently pursuing a Master’s degree with Patricia Craig at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), was born in Paris, France, but received her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Gnessin College of Music in Moscow, Russia. One might thus expect that her sensitivity to the Russian repertoire would be almost a “second nature,” complementing her French background. This turned out to be the high point of the Graduate Recital she gave last night in the SFCM Recital Hall, accompanied by pianist Alexander Katsman.

The lion’s share of the second half of her program was dominated by five songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff. These were all early works, taken from the Opus 4, 8, 14, and 21 collections, composed between 1890 and 1902. This was a time when Rachmaninoff was just beginning to find his voice. There were many false starts in his career; but 1901 was the year in which he composed his Opus 18 piano concerto in C minor (the second), which quickly became one of the most frequently performed concertos in the repertoire.

While that concerto established Rachmaninoff’s virtuoso skills in both writing for and playing the piano, his songs do not allow the piano to overshadow the vocal line. Rather, the songs seem to reflect his interest in Russian poets, most of whom were probably unfamiliar to much (most?) of last night’s audience. Vernui’s program book provided only the English translations, thus avoiding the need to wrestle with the Cyrillic alphabet. More importantly, however, she endowed each of the songs with a dramatic rhetoric through which the ideas behind the English text were evident, even to those of us without a command of Russian.

In other words, she brought operatic technique to the execution of these songs. The result, however, was the clearly communicated intimacy of a chamber music recital, rather than the grandeur of the operatic stage. Poetry, at its best, amounts to an elevated conversation with the reader. Veruni caught this spirit skillfully, providing an engaging introduction to a repertoire that receives relatively little attention in the United States.

It was also worth considering how Rachmaninoff had subdued his personal pianistic skills in the interest of prioritizing the singer. Several of the other composers on the program were responsible for major contributions to the piano repertoire: Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Franz Liszt. Of these three, Schubert was the most accomplished “double threat,” achieving major contributions for both solo piano and solo voice.

Curiously, Vernui’s Schubert selection, like the Rachmaninoff songs, was also an early work, the D. 118 “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), composed in 1814. (For those interested in historical perspective, D. 1, a fantasia for piano duet in G major, was composed in 1810.) The text is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Gretchen has just had her first encounter with Faust and the spinning of her wheel reflects her obsessive memories of the moment.

It is often overlooked that Goethe’s choices of rhyme and metre were often simplistic to the point of doggerel. In this particular case he is reminding us that Gretchen is a totally undistinguished peasant girl and that Faust is the one whose mind has been warped by obsession. None of this is evident in Schubert’s setting. He all but ignores Goethe’s structural architecture and weaves a semantic web of his own that turns Gretchen into an operatic heroine, who continues to stand above her counterparts in just about every “real” opera based on Faust. Veruni provided an account of that web, weaving it through her own attention to dynamic levels; and, if there were a few moments of excess, they simply reflected Schubert’s approach to rethinking Goethe’s text.

She brought similar dramatic intensity, again with a thoughtful approach to dynamics, to her Schumann selection. This was “Widmung” (dedication), a setting of a poem by Friedrich Rückert, which is the first song in Schumann’s 26-song Opus 25 collection Myrthen (myrtles). The cycle was Schumann’s wedding present to his bride, Clara Wieck. As one might guess, the music abounds with exuberance; and that spirit was captured by Veruni without letting her expression spill over into excess.

More problematic was Liszt’s setting of Petrarch’s sonnet “Pace non trovo” (I find no peace). Like Schubert, Liszt focused on the semantics of the text, rather than trying to reflect the poet’s structural foundations. Unfortunately, most of his efforts went into his piano virtuosity, through which he had no trouble capturing the full scope of Petrarch’s restless moods. The problem was that he left little room for a vocal line and thus little for the vocalist to bring to Petrarch’s words; and this was probably the weakest selection on the program.

The only other Italian selection was “Sposa son disprezzata” (I am wife and I am scorned), an aria from Antonio Vivaldi’s pasticcio Bajazet. Not surprisingly, this sounded a bit like the middle movement from one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos. Nevertheless, Veruni’s execution made it clear that Vivaldi’s rhetoric for the violin could translate well into the soprano voice. However, this was a vocal line that would have managed much better with accompaniment from an ensemble of suitable string instruments.

The other art song selections came from a time frame and aesthetic spirit similar to those of the Rachmaninoff pieces. The German side was represented by Joseph Marx’ setting of Paul Heyse’s 1908 poem “Hat dich die Liebe berürht” (if love has touched you), while the two French songs on the program were “L’heure Exquise” (the exquisite hour), a richly erotic musical lyric by Reynaldo Hahn, and Francis Poulenc’s setting of Paul Éluard’s “Les chemins de l’amour” (paths of love).

French was also the language of the first of two opera selections, “Je veux vivre” (I want to live), Juliette’s enthusiastic aria from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Here, again, Veruni had an opportunity to display her exuberance; and, if Gounod was more than a little excessive in his rhetoric, she managed to bring a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to its coloratura execution. More problematic was “I want Magic” from André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, simply because the complexity of Blanche DuBois’ character (as well as those of Stanley and Stella Kowalski) was just too elusive for Previn’s approach to composition. Far more satisfying was Veruni’s encore selection of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” (life in rosy hues), Marguerite Monnot and Louis Guglielmi’s setting of Piaf’s own words. Veruni did not try to imitate Piaf in her delivery, but she had no trouble conveying the spirit behind the music.

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