The art of the song recital

More than ever, vocal recitals arrive with a mission: dispelling pandemic isolation, endorsing social justice and, as ever, fostering reappreciation and rediscovery of great music touched by the voice.

Requiring only a fraction of opera-performance machinery, vocal recitals aren’t simply star singers working solo. This highly specific medium morphs every which way, with new outspoken repertoire, an influx of vocal talent from the early-music community and liberated performance manner. Yet art song maintains its identity – as pianistic as it is vocal, as literary as it is musical, with all elements fusing into a place where audiences better know the artists, the art and even themselves. No scenery. No costumes. No barriers between artists and audience.

‘It does things that other art forms can’t do. Profound statements of love, death and nature … the absolute magic of song … even if written by some chap who died 200 years ago,’ says pianist Joseph Middleton, one of the busiest song accompanists and Director of Leeds Lieder, whose festival this June has 36 events (twice that of last year) in a ‘who’s who’ line-up including soprano Véronique Gens, mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly and tenor Mark Padmore but also talent that breaks from tradition. Consider Errollyn Wallen, the Belize-born composer, singer and pianist whose pieces defy classification – with serious lyrics, harmonic freedom beyond Debussy and music so eventful as to be miniature tone poems, with titles such as Are You Worried about the Rising Cost of Funerals? (1994).

Among current vocal recitalists and audiences, none of this is very surprising. ‘What you have to say is almost as important as who is saying it,’ says tenor Nicholas Phan, the seasoned American recitalist whose focused, Bach-friendly voice also accommodates Schumann’s classic song-cycles. Another Bach singer, German baritone Benjamin Appl has been touring a programme titled Nocturne which tells darker stories through Czech composer Ilse Weber, who was murdered at Auschwitz. In Appl’s words, the programme shows how ‘people retreated into themselves to write music as an escape’. But William Bolcom’s breezy, roguish Song of Black Max is also on the programme. Nocturnal concerts also require light – if not a sunrise.

‘Anything is possible,’ says the pianist and longtime song accompanist Malcolm Martineau, ‘if you tell a good story and make the poetry come alive.’ Opera fans may debate if words or music are more important, but the art-song community agrees that the poetry remains the expressive priority. ‘I tell that to my masterclasses … to help them think about what the music starts off with,’ says pianist Jeff Cohen, whose recordings include the complete songs of Reynaldo Hahn; ‘and that accommodates more personal self-expression for performers and more intimate communion with audiences.’

Some poems, however, are more timeless than others. Steven Blier included the dark-humoured Tom Lehrer song Poisoning Pigeons in the Park (1959) in his New York Festival of Song concerts, though when a birdwatcher took offence, Blier began questioning if that kind of humour made his programmes too brittle. It’s like this, he says: ‘When you ask people over to your house, you aren’t going to serve them flat water and crackers.’

Conviction is an absolute essential in recitals, in performances where singer and pianist make space for each other in tiny, intricate ways while colouring vowels and inflecting the bass lines. ‘It’s a collaboration like no other,’ says composer and pianist Jake Heggie, who is best known for writing operas such as Dead Man Walking but who has lost count of his song-cycle output. ‘A great recitalist isn’t going to take on something that they can’t inhabit fully. If it’s a Schubert song-cycle, Schubert is in the house, because the voice is so alive and clean that it feels like a world premiere all over again.’

Schubert has plenty of company these days – animated company, with tenor Ian Bostridge departing from the crook of the piano and prowling the stage, or, in other concert repertoire, mezzo Joyce DiDonato pounding on the stage floor for emphasis. Schubert is also joined by lesser-known composers on the fast track to standard repertoire. One particularly dramatic instance is The Seal Man by British-American composer Rebecca Clarke, whose strangely ecstatic scenario has a paranormal being claiming the body and soul of a vulnerable woman. It has leapt out of obscurity in roughly five years, and not just in recordings: ‘Every student I teach in masterclasses brings me The Seal Man,’ Martineau tells me. Equally entrancing Clarke ballads are emerging too.

Other discoveries need more special care. The delicate songs of Fernand de La Tombelle (1854-1928) had a welcome resurrection on the Aparté label (7/17; featuring baritone Tassis Christoyannis and Cohen) with help from the composer’s family estate. The songs later spread to other recitals by singers such as Gens. But while recording ‘Reynaldo Hahn: Complete Songs’ on four discs (Bru Zane, 3/20), Christoyannis and Cohen hit snags: some of the songs were not fully finished. With estate permission, Cohen filled in the blanks. It happens. With older, lesser-known repertoire, Phan has had to create his own editions from manuscript just to see what the music offers.

The bigger challenge, though, is coaxing relevance out of such long-hidden musical niches. Cohen seems ideally suited to the task: ‘It takes more time,’ he explains. ‘I had a piano teacher who always thought it was more interesting to work on music that was less excellent – as a way of approaching a masterpiece.’

Thank goodness the masterpieces aren’t Beethoven’s, whose often-awkward song output turns up only during anniversary years for a reason: ‘It never feels good to sing,’ confirms Phan.

Singers are traditionally the driving force behind song recitals – it’s one of their few chances for artistic autonomy; pianists, however, are the organising force. According to Martineau, mezzo Susan Graham will tell him: ‘You know my voice; make me a programme.’ Heggie is used to singers coming in with a set programme – no doubt including some of his compositions. Soprano Carolyn Sampson and Middleton have enjoyable afternoons, reading through songs together with enviable mutuality. ‘She can sight-read anything you put in front of her,’ says Middleton. ‘Sometimes singers are accompanying you as much as you’re accompanying them.’

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose voice is tooled more for Rossini coloratura than it is for recitals, wouldn’t wait for composers to address the 21st-century African American experience in song. He has premiered pieces with a speed not possible in opera. He started in 2018 with Cycles of my Being by Tyshawn Sorey, a composer who was previously known mostly in experimental circles but found a more mainstream audience through song. Since then, Brownlee has assembled the programme Rising, pairing older song repertoire by Robert Owens and Margaret Bonds with newly commissioned songs by Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer and others set to the words of poets such as Langston Hughes from the Harlem Renaissance (1920s). Having toured the programme earlier this year, Brownlee recorded it for June release (Warner).

In no way, however, is the standard repertoire being displaced. At least 15 new recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise have come out since 2021 (with new relevance in the loneliness of lockdown?). One highlight of Middleton’s Leeds line-up is a rare, post-retirement appearance by a legend from generations past: mezzo Dame Janet Baker in conversation, in conjunction with a screening of the film Janet Baker: In her Own Words, celebrating her patrician artistry and timeless repertoire. ‘There’s always going to be a space, a thirst and a need for that,’ says Middleton.

Despite such bursts of activity, the art-song world has historically existed on a slippery slope. By their very definition, song recitals can’t be mounted at London’s expansive Royal Albert Hall and still be what they are. They also require commitment on the part of presenters. Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once recalled that even when vocal recitals were at a popularity peak in wartime Berlin, ‘Concert organisers were not charitable institutions. If we didn’t bring the money in, then we wouldn’t be asked again.’ Martineau encourages the long view. He has played to full audiences at sizeable venues in, for example, Toulouse which didn’t develop overnight: ‘If they have enough money to lose a little to start with and can stick with it, they will get there in the end.’

Each art-song entity has its own distinctive identity, allowing them to build synergy in a sprawling global community. In the UK, Oxford Lieder hosts two weeks of singers and pianists every October with around 50 concerts. The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, held every two years starting in 1983, launched the careers of baritones Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel, and in 1989 introduced the Lieder Prize (later renamed the Song Prize), won by singers including soprano Elizabeth Watts.

Also held every two years, the Wigmore Hall/Bollinger International Song Competition handed out nine prizes to promising singers in 2022, including special repertoire prizes for Schubert Lieder and British song. Such singers, with any luck, will continue visiting Wigmore Hall, an ideal showcase venue where recitalists launch, consolidate and culminate what can be a 30-year career in song – with BBC broadcasts and Wigmore Hall Live recordings.

On the Continent, the Aix-en-Provence Festival academy hosts 10 singers and three pianists during a three-week residency, exploring works in a variety of languages, in conjunction with performances by seasoned artists such as baritone Christian Gerhaher as well as star singers not necessarily associated with recitals, such as sopranos Asmik Grigorian and Pretty Yende. Austria’s Schubertiade festival in Schwarzenberg and Hohenems (running from April to October) most resembles the Leeds festival with its star-vocalist line-up, but the audience rapport has special energy, with native German-speaking listeners who know every word.

Across the pond, Minneapolis’s history of modern song – thanks to local composers Libby Larsen and Dominick Argento – continues in the Source Song Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in August 2023 by hosting a 10-member faculty including Larsen, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and pianist Warren Jones to work with vocalist-pianist pairs and several composers (‘a Manhattan experience at Minneapolis prices,’ is how Artistic Director Clara Osowski describes it). The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (of which Phan is Artistic Director) had newly discovered songs by Florence Price in its four-day September 2022 festival, plus various Lieder Lounge concerts presented at different times of the year. In Bethesda, Maryland, the Boulanger Initiative (named after Lili and Nadia Boulanger) offers performers access to a database of works by women and gender-marginalised composers. Of 8000 pieces, 83 are songs.

Such ever-expanding repertoire possibilities pose the vexing challenge of how to sequence them on a concert programme or recording. The mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is credited with breaking the last rule in concert programming by presenting composers in non-chronological order – maybe starting with Mahler and ending with Mozart – and making it work. Now that every programme is its own ecosystem, the sequence can form a make-or-break concert.

Of his far-reaching New York Festival of Song concerts, Blier says: ‘Starting out, I need to know four things: what the first song is, the last song, the midpoint (is there an intermission?) and the encore.’ The wrong pairing of songs, says Middleton, ‘can cancel out the magic in each of them. Or you can elevate both of them and hold up some kind of mirror so that both of them are shown in a new light.’ Blier indicates that songs must ‘talk to each other’. And at Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the conversation was slavery in a Singing Freedom mini-festival this year that included a full choir. Also in Philadelphia, the Lyric Fest concert series has programmes that aren’t just themed but have between-song readings, maybe letters, or biographical accounts – and not on obvious subjects. The programme A Singer’s Singer, for instance, documented the Paris salon of Winnaretta Singer (of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune) with a programme of music she commissioned from the Debussy–Satie generation.

What a contrast all this is to the Schubertiades of the early 19th century that were what we’d now call a free-for-all – marathon-length events, not concerts so much as private salons, presenting Schubert works of all kinds. By the 1930s and ’40s, when the repertoire evolved from folk-rooted strophic songs to more searching through-composed works by Hugo Wolf, composers were clumped together in like-minded song groups.

Radio was a breakthrough. At a time when international vocal careers were launched by a Berlin recital (including Americans such as contralto Marian Anderson), the pianist Michael Raucheisen (1889-1984) developed a catalogue mentality. As head of Berlin Radio’s chamber music and song department from 1940, he recorded more than a thousand songs – ostensibly for broadcast – in his massive Lied der Welt (Song of the World) project. Singers included Schwarzkopf, bass-baritone Hans Hotter and tenor Peter Anders. Long tainted by their proximity to Nazism, these recordings are a time capsule showing singers articulating the texts with spontaneous vitality while the rubato-prone Raucheisen created undulating accompaniments. The 66-CD box-set of Raucheisen recordings from Membran (12/05) had a particular impact on Martineau: ‘If you aim for one expressive goal for the song, you don’t do too much too early on.’

The completist mindset continued with comprehensive, composer-based LP sets by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore (1950s to 1970s). Durable longtime partnerships – baritone Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc, baritone Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin, Schwarzkopf with Geoffrey Parsons, tenor Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich – maintained their own sense of well-sequenced recitals in concerts and recordings, reminding listeners that song recitals existed first and foremost to be enjoyed.

Pianist Graham Johnson formed the Songmakers’ Almanac (1976-2011) with founding members Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Richard Jackson. They pioneered a mixture of composers, solos, duets and ensembles in programmes recorded under evocative titles: ‘Voices of the Night’, ‘Souvenirs de Venise’ and ‘Voyage à Paris’. Johnson has remained a hugely influential figure.

Out of left field came Palazzetto Bru Zane, Centre de Musique Romantique Française, inaugurated in 2009 and dedicated to the rich but under-recorded French period from 1780 to 1920. Curiously headquartered in Venice but regularly mining the Bibliothèque National in Paris for long-forgotten works, Bru Zane has issued more than 50 handsomely designed recordings, mostly opera but also the complete Hahn songs plus volumes by Franck and others performed by Christoyannis and Cohen. ‘Some people find that French song is not as interesting as the Lieder of Wolf and Brahms,’ says Artistic Director and musicologist Alexandre Dratwicki. ‘It’s very good music that touches listeners directly. If you understand who sang these French songs, if you connect the music with known places, suddenly they make sense.’

The packaging includes 180-page books with archival photos, paintings and portraits that sketch a visual counterpart to the music. The releases are in a class of their own in other ways too. Profit expectations are such that less than only 25 per cent of Bru Zane’s annual budget of four million euros comes from the sales. As a non-profit-making foundation, Bru Zane also receives credit when its research has contributed to like-minded recordings on other labels. When Canada’s ATMA Classique was readying the 13-CD Massenet complete mélodies for voice and piano for release last year, Dratwicki intentionally avoided repertoire duplication and chose to complement it with recordings of Massenet orchestral songs.

Bru Zane’s recent eight-CD set ‘Compositrices: New Light on French Romantic Women Composers’ includes songs by Farrenc, Jaëll, Montgeroult, Viardot and many others. ‘From now on, there will be no excuse for ignoring Romantic women composers,’ reads the promotional material. Most important, the depth of context in the packaging restores lost meaning to old works on a level few have attempted.

At the other end of the spectrum, New York Festival of Song’s recent album ‘Black and Blue’ with tenor Joshua Blue and Blier – its title-song written by Fats Waller – uses context to give new meaning to music of a relatively recent era, and in arrangements including bass and drums. This is art song? In a world that’s rarely been so aware of racial injustice, does the protest song Strange Fruit, about racially motivated lynchings in the Deep South, become a miniature epic – as art songs are – that looks unflinchingly on a Goya-esque portrait of death? Well, yes. Yes, indeed!


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