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Stephanie Blythe at Shriver Hall

Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-sopranoMezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe gave a solo recital on Sunday evening at Shriver Hall, which meant another trip to Baltimore for Ionarts. We last heard Ms. Blythe with Washington Concert Opera in Rossini's Tancredi. Her voice is just as puissant, silky, and dark chocolate as it ever was, but giving a recital of songs is not the same as powering one's way through an opera in a large hall. Blythe has assembled a varied program, in three languages, all of which she sings capably, if some sit more comfortably than others. The results were uneven but still with much to enjoy.

The best match for Blythe's musical personality was the disappointingly short set of three mélodies by Henri Duparc. Matched in exotic color by the full-voiced accompaniment of Warren Jones, Blythe took us into the ambivalent world of these unusual songs, set to poems whose meaning is not always clear, or that we may not really understand until the final line. Chanson triste was gorgeous, with a sustained vocal line wrapped in a murky, murmuring accompaniment. Au pays où se fait la guerre (poem by Théophile Gautier) is one of my favorite Duparc songs, especially in the second stanza, when Duparc's accompaniment turns chromatic. Blythe's huge voice burst forth in the final lines, embodying the narrator's despair, the perfect vehicle for overwhelming sound.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Mezzo-soprano Blythe dazzles (Baltimore Sun, December 12)

Jay Nordlinger, Stirring Moments, But Off Night for Blythe (New York Sun, December 11)

Anne Midgette, Power First Restrained, Then Set Free (New York Times, December 9)

David Patrick Stearns, A big voice - minus the meaning (Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6)
Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Españolas is perhaps the best adaptation of folk music in the song repertory. Who knows what some of these old texts mean? In Asturiana, the narrator sings about a green pine that weeps in sympathy. De Falla takes something exceedingly simple, a tune sung with tender, uninterrupted line by Blythe, and stitches a gentle piano accompaniment around it. The tonally rather ambiguous Nana, a hushed lullaby, was disarmingly sweet. That quiet was then obliterated in the final song, the unsettled lover's complaint Polo, with its pulsating accompaniment and yowling exclamations. For her single encore, Blythe stayed in Spanish, with the carnavalesque Canto negro, from Xavier Montsalvatge's cycle Cinco canciones negras.

Least satisfying was the first half of Brahms Lieder, for which we may be tempted to blame Brahms as much as Blythe. The first set of five songs had many high points, and Jones's piano captured the tear and pull of Brahmsian anguish. What is it about switching from accompanying to playing alone? In his set of Brahms short piano pieces, Jones's sound was mostly loud and percussive, with the emphasis in the Capriccio (op. 76, no. 5) definitely not on lyricism. With Hélène Grimaud's strangely light reading of the G minor Rhapsody still in my ears from last month at Shriver Hall, Jones's interpretation of the same piece seemed heavy on power and pedal but lacking in subtlety.

To reach the sort of muffled, interior reading she wanted, Blythe had to get in touch with the soft side of her voice. The good news is that she has one, and her approach here was subtle, if a bit underwhelming. There were moments when she reached that sort of intense, compressed sound I think she wanted, as in the gorgeous second half of Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht. Blythe's reading of the Vier ernste Gesänge, those four serious songs on Biblical texts, was frankly disappointing, although as always with Blythe there were delicious moments. The death march pulse of Denn es gehet was more agitated and irregular than steady. Still, this recital was a virtuosic display of a first-rate voice.

The next concert at Shriver Hall will feature cellist Lynn Harrell and pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion (January 28th, 5:30 pm). Ionarts will definitely be back there in April, for concerts by the Tallis Scholars, with an all-Renaissance program (April 1, 5:30 pm), and pianist Louis Lortie, playing all of the Chopin etudes (April 29, 5:30 pm).


Anonymous said...

If Blythe is so disappointing, as you say, I challenge you to review a finer mezzo soprano singing today!

Charles T. Downey said...

Now, now, let's not get all sensitive. As I made abundantly clear, I am an ardent admirer of Blythe's voice. I found fault with only one section of the recital. Surely to admire a performer does not mean that one will enjoy everything she does equally.