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English Mermaid Stranded in Washington

Sophie Daneman, a regular at Wigmore Hall in London or Weill Recital Hall in New York, a veteran English soprano who has worked with the "who's who" of period performance specialists such as William Christie, Christopher Hogwood, and Philip Herreweghe (see the Ionarts review of her performance with Les Arts Florissants on February 4), was to be marveled at in the West Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art this Sunday (2489th concert, on March 14, 2004). The recital—a form of concert that draws smaller crowds than other performances—promised Schumann, Wolf, and, alluringly, Francis Poulenc. The stage had been prepared with reflecting panels behind the piano, which is a rare (because futile?) attempt to rein in the difficult acoustics of this venue that is particularly unfit for recitals and solo piano performances. Although they were installed to keep the sound from bouncing around uncontrollably, I could not discern the exact effect these panels had. A welcome patch, perhaps, but probably no more.

Joseph Haydn's "The Mermaid's Song" was the first to go, and it fit perfectly. Mme. Daneman's silver-blond hair waving behind her, large, deep eyes, and a beautiful, no-frills pale black dress that tightly clad her suggested the mermaid even before she sang of it. Her singing "follow, follow, follow me" would gladly have been headed to by at least half the audience, and not just on account of the quality of her voice. The assumption that the dress was a very light, fine leather did not hold up to closer scrutiny. And neither did the three Haydn songs that dittied along delightfully. That they were in English came as a bit of a surprise, but then so did the very existence of Haydn songs.

More enjoyment came with four Schumann songs from "Lieder-Abend für die Jugend" (Evening of songs for the youth). What an improvement that not some youth, but the mature Sophie Daneman (youthful though as she can be) sang these songs with much animation and absolutely astounding pronunciation. Not only did I understand her German better than her English, but even a song as full of such ridiculously difficult pronunciation hurdles as "Der Sandman" was mastered without much difficulty. If Placido Domingo were not as magnanimous as he is and had only he stopped by, he would (or should) have turned green with envy. "Kennst du das Land?" (Do you know the country where the lemons blossom?) was so ravishing that the venue's shortcomings became unimportant or forgotten altogether.

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