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Christine Brewer In Excelsis

This week stands out for the number of appearances by star singers here in Washington, with Anthony Dean Griffey's recital earlier in the week and Washington Concert Opera's La Cenerentola with Vivica Genaux, among others, coming up tomorrow. At the peak of the trend was a recital by Ionarts favorite soprano Christine Brewer last night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, as part of the Fortas Chamber Music Series. Your moderator has been an enthusiastic follower of La Brewer for several years as her career hit the big time, and we have praised her work in recordings from Wagner to William Bolcom, as a Lieder singer in a 2005 recital at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and on the stage many times, including as Ellen Orford and Gloriana. One expected her latest recital, also associated with the American Music Festival sponsored by Vocal Arts Society (but officially under the aegis of the Kennedy Center), to be up to those standards. It turned out to be far above them, indeed, one of the best song recitals to reach these ears in recent memory.

Brewer's voice is that rara avis, a luscious and buttery dramatic soprano that has the power to strip paint off the walls but with the control and suavity to apply that nuclear force only when needed. It is the instrument of choice for some repertories, like the songs of Wagner and Strauss, such as she sang on her last recital in the area, but Brewer has also excelled in works by other composers that can benefit from a large, broad voice. This was certainly true of her appearance in the title role of Gluck's Alceste last summer at Santa Fe Opera, which provided the striking opening number of this recital, the aria Divinités du Styx. The blistering high note, which returns a few times with the refrain, jolted one out of one's seat as did Brewer's noble and dignified stage presence.

available at Amazon
J. Marx, Orchestral Songs and Choral Works, C. Brewer, BBC SO, Trinity Boys Choir, J. Bělohlávek

(released on January 27, 2009)
Chandos CHAN 10505 | 71'35"
This was only a warm-up for the main attraction of the first half, an extended set of songs by Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964), all of which Brewer recorded (of many more) with conductor Jiří Bělohlávek on a must-purchase CD released last year. (Most worthy for Brewer and the angelic Trinity Boys Choir and for the fact that several pieces received their first-ever recording on this disc, rather than the less than stellar performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at some points.) We have reviewed some of the composer's 150-some songs only once before, when the Vienna Philharmonic appeared at Disney Hall a year ago. If you like the deliciously corrupt post-Romantic chromaticism of Richard Strauss and Erich Korngold, you should find a place on your shelf for Marx, a composer of exceptional talent (and a university academic with a background in art history and literature, as well as a doctoral degree in philosophy) who has inexplicably fallen into oblivion. Thanks to the Joseph-Marx-Gesellschaft, among others, his music is slowly being resurrected. (Memo to Marin Alsop and Christoph Eschenbach -- one local orchestra or the other needs to give a performance of Marx's Herbstsymphonie, which Riccardo Chailly has championed. Marx also composed three string quartets and some other chamber music.)

Like Strauss, the love of Marx's life was a talented soprano, Anna Hansa (1877-1967), who remained married to another man the composer knew in Graz even during the many years of her liaison with Marx. The songs test the limits of the soprano voice without pushing it over the edge, well, at least with someone like Brewer. Her gorgeous melodic line soared over the perfumed harmonies of Selige Nacht, with not only a puissant top, deployed ecstatically on the word "Ganz" in Waldseligkeit, but a chocolate-rich middle and low register, heard in Marienlied, with its vaguely smutty chromaticism almost shocking for a devotion to the Virgin Mary. Brewer also showed her comic side, regretting the bashful propriety of the narrator's lover in Der bescheidene Schäfer: to see her in what she described as her only comic role, go to Santa Fe Opera this summer, where she will sing Lady Billows in Britten's Albert Herring. Three Strauss songs, which concluded the first half, were just as pleasing (her new CD of Strauss opera scenes will be released this summer). Pianist Craig Rutenberg gave an inspired rendition of the orchestral reductions in all these songs, capturing many of the subtle colors of the score as well as approximating the full dynamic range of the orchestra, to support his singer at full moments and not force her voice at softer ones.

A second half of mostly American songs, far from being a disappointment after music that is so much Brewer's specialty, was just as revelatory. A set of songs by Richard Hundley (b. 1931, in Cincinnati) revealed a harmonic vocabulary not as dirty and chromatic as Marx but with plenty of pleasingly crunchy dissonances and an innovative and lyric melodic sense. The style is disarmingly simple, a tender setting of Richard Crashaw's lovely poem Awake the Sleeping Sun or a wide-eyed, naive rendering of Dickinson's Will There Really Be a Morning?. Only briefly, in Come Ready and See Me, did Hundley's harmony go a little too far over the edge into pop trashiness, with the progression on the word "I can't wait forever."

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, Brewer sings brilliantly on Fortas Chamber program (Washington Post, May 10)

Matt Steel, Soprano Christine Brewer lights up 2010 Gilmore Keyboard Festival with her vocal prowess (Kalamazoo Gazette, May 5)

Sarah Bryan Miller, Christine Brewer is transcendent Isolde with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 3)
The 2002 song cycle Vignettes: Letters from George to Evelyn, by Texas-born composer Alan Louis Smith, is a work that merits repeated listening, too. It sets excerpts from war-time correspondence received by Evelyn Honts written by and about her young husband, First Lieutenant George W. Honts, who was posted to England in 1943, one short year after their marriage. He survived the crossing of the invasion of Normandy and then died in action along the Rhine River in 1945. As Brewer noted before she began the work, today is the 65th anniversary of V-E Day, a coincidence that made the work seem more poignant. While the entire work is well crafted, it is the setting of the telegram message that Evelyn received about George's death that was most devastating, much of it sung on a white-toned single note including all of the text ("1945 APR 2 PM 6 24 dot dot dot TA 84"). In the actual body of the message, Brewer roared to raging high notes on certain words (war, express, regret) that were allowed to make the piano sound board ring with overtones as Rutenberg held the sustaining pedal down.

As she did at her 2005 recital, Brewer concluded with a set of unusual songs drawn from the recital programs of favorite singers of the past, like Helen Traubel, Kirsten Flagstad, Eleanor Steber, and Eileen Farrell, most of which had been offered as encores. None of them was particularly familiar, but some of them were not only worth discovering but should be better known than they are, especially Edwin MacArthur's inspiring ballad Night, Paul Sargent's sultry Hickory Hill, Frank Bridge's sweepingly Romantic Love Went a'Riding, and Frank La Forge's impassioned, enigmatic Hills. For her own encores, Brewer gave a hilarious rendition of Celius Dougherty's Review, a setting of a text that reads like any review of a song recital, good and bad (with the final afterthought, "Matt Schmidt was the sympathetic accompanist," after which Brewer passed Rutenberg a dollar), as well as a moving version of the traditional spiritual City Called Heaven.

If you had the misfortune to miss this recital, mark the date on your calendar when Christine Brewer will return to Washington, to sing a recital for the Vocal Arts Society next season (March 23, 2011). You will not want to miss it.

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