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Martin Bruns and the Traces of Hafiz

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Martin Bruns:
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Busoni Songs

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Schubert, Schiller-Lieder
The Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series at the Freer Gallery of Art programs concerts that reflect the nature of the museum's collection, which combines Asian and Near Eastern art with European art, like the work of James Whistler, influenced by those traditions. Some of these concerts that focus exclusively on non-European music are not of much interest to me, but Wednesday night's program, devoted to European and American composers' songs on the poetry of the Persian poet Shams ud-din Muhammed, known by the pseudonym Hāfez (Hafiz), certainly was. The cause of the 14th-century poet from Shiraz, in what is now southern Iran, was advanced in Europe by Goethe, who admired him so warmly that he proclaimed Hafiz his "twin" (whence the nature of the Hafiz-Goethe memorial in Weimar). Goethe even used the Persian poet's collection of poetry, the Divan, as the model for his own work titled West-Eastern Divan. Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said borrowed the name for their orchestra project bringing together young Israeli and Palestinian musicians.

Locating songs on (mostly German) poetry by Goethe and others who translated, adapted, or were influenced by Hafiz's poetry -- mainly Friedrich Rückert, Georg Friedrich Daumer, and Hans Bethge -- Swiss baritone Martin Bruns put together a beautiful and intellectually stimulating program of songs called Hafiz in the West: Songs of Love and Life. He will hopefully record it soon, adding it to his discography devoted to recitals of unexpected composers (Busoni) or of songs arranged by poet (Schiller) -- see also his book on songs that set the poetry of Petrarch. A thorough essay in the program, quite unnecessarily rehashed by Bruns from the stage, introduced the listener to Hafiz's poetry and his favored form, the ghazal. (As we learned from the concert organizer, the plan to have a recitation of Hafiz's poetry in the original Persian, a sophisticated art form of its own, turned out to be too difficult.) The poetry's most common subjects are love and drinking, an intellectual form of partying reminiscent of the ancient Symposium (which, after all, comes from the Greek word to drink with or together).

Bruns has a large voice, and even though he was evidently not fully healthy, repeatedly stepping off stage to drink water and clear his throat, he sang with stentorian power, perhaps tilting too much toward the nasal at the top. His interpretative approach had a disappointing sameness from song to song, however, not providing enough differentiation of tone and emotion to make this a truly memorable performance. A mellifluous legato was welcome in Schubert's Du bist die Ruh, and the voice was scaled down for songs like Schubert's Geheimes versus dramatic, overwrought ones like Granville Bantock's Alá yá! Send the Cup Round. The program was divided into carefully crafted sets, organized around a single composer, a detail destroyed by the audience insisting on applauding after each and every song, making the arc of intended meaning impossible to appreciate.

Some of the evening's best discoveries were in a set of Goethe songs by Hugo Wolf, all on poems from West-Eastern Divan, in which the narrative characters were more clearly etched by Bruns and where the orchestral scope of the piano, played bombastically and even a bit wildly by Jan Philip Schulze, was most needed. A somber, heavy-voiced Brahms set preceded it, seeming to show Brahms as Brahms, even if the inspiration was Persian erotic poetry. Best of all was a practically unknown set of songs by Viktor Ullmann, Liederbuch des Hafis, op. 30, set to poetry by Bethge and composed in Prague shortly before Ullmann was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Ullmann has already come in for praise in our pages, and James Conlon is doing a lot to raise awareness of his music. This set of songs should be on every bass and/or baritone's repertory list, songs that are a sort of boozy mixture of Persian mysticism and the Czech cabaret. Two Hafiz settings by Alan Hovhaness, one of which served as an encore, in much less surely pronounced English, are also well worth your attention.

On Sunday (March 1, 2 pm) the next free concert at the Freer Gallery of Art will combine the traditional instruments of the Music from China ensemble with the saxophones of the PRISM Quartet.

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