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Harping on the String of Loneliness

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Vita (Monteverdi / Scelsi),
S. Wieder-Atherton, S. Lancu,
M. Lejeune

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Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

Wilhelm to the Harfenspieler: "The instrument should but accompany the voice; for tunes and melodies without words and meaning seem to me like butterflies or finely-variegated birds, which hover round us in the air, which we could wish to catch and make our own; whereas song is like a blessed genius that exalts us towards heaven, and allures the better self in us to attend him."
If the recital by baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, heard on Thursday night at the Austrian Embassy, had been on my radar screen earlier, it would certainly have made my top picks for the month. Unfortunately, this concert, presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum, was listed only recently on their Web site, and in spite of being free, it was sadly under-attended. Holzmair is a known quantity as a Lieder singer, but it was the pioneering programming of French-American cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton that drew us in. A chiastic program, also performed in New York on Tuesday, it had a set of Schubert songs, arranged for voice and cello, in the middle, surrounded on either side by the movements of a Bach cello suite, book-ended by local premieres of new pieces for this unusual combination of low-set timbres.

Franck Krawczyk, who regularly collaborates with Wieder-Atherton, made the transcriptions of Schubert songs, with the piano accompaniment resourcefully transferred to the cello. Schubert obviously had an affinity for the three songs sung by the gloomy harp-player in Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, which he set so memorably in his op. 12 -- Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß, and An die Türen will ich schleichen -- songs of rejection, loneliness, and sorrow. Holzmair remained seated next to Wieder-Atherton for the Schubert, giving his usual careful attention to every facet of diction and meaning of the texts, if not always with the surest sense of intonation, perhaps thrown off by the sparseness of the cello's accompanying figures. Wer nie was particularly striking, with the cello reduced to a moaning lament, and a dry, all-pizzicato accompaniment in An die Türen, little more than a walking bass pattern. One had, even more than in the piano original, a sense of the harpist in the cello sound, as well as the oddness of this anxious character met by Wilhelm Meister on his journey. Another of Schubert's Goethe songs, Wonne der Wehmut (the second of the two songs of op. posth. 115), served as a brief but equally mordant postlude to the anguish of isolation.

On both sides of the Schubert, Wieder-Atherton played the Sarabande from the fifth Bach cello suite (C minor, BWV 1011), one of the most oddly chromatic pieces in that set of pieces. Given an almost formless rhythmic freedom by Wieder-Atherton, a sinuous stream of compressed sadness, it made a nice bridge from and back to the other dances of the suite. Wieder-Atherton has a dark, molasses-heavy tone on the cello, favoring especially the low strings, but she is not the sort of player one admires for always faultless technique. Her approach to the dance movements, other than the Sarabande, was in strict rhythm, to keep the character of the dances, and it afforded little room for technical ease, resulting in a few off-color notes in spite of the often stately tempo choices. It was not ideal Bach, but it had an unmistakably individualistic character, and that is saying something given how often this suite is performed.

The first new work was Todesfuge Songs, a setting of a Paul Celan poem by American composer Lori Laitman. Here the cello often chased after the baritone's melodic statements, fugue-like, a mixture of almost percussive effects and tuneful outbursts. Laitman writes well for the voice and has specialized in writing songs, making the work an apt match for Schubert. It had a mysterious, incantation-like quality, in a rolling compound meter, at times almost as carefree as a sea chanty or drinking song, except for the somber words about Death being a master, calling the tune in Germany (Celan lost his parents in World War II and survived a forced-labor camp).

By contrast, David Leisner's new song cycle Das wunderbare Wesen, a setting of selections from the Tao Te Ching, in a German translation by Richard Wilhelm, felt much more purposeful and directed. Leisner used a single-note motif in the cello, in Doppler-like crescendo and decrescendo, that seemed to symbolize the mystery of the Tao, the way that cannot be named. Leisner used the combination of baritone and cello much more imaginatively, with a greater variety of textures and sounds throughout the five sections. The voice curled around the cello's single note at the opening, creating a warp and woof of dissonance and consonance, while the baritone's near-Sprechstimme was accompanied by a jazzy, unpredictable pizzicato in the cello in the second song. The third movement's single cello line, mournful and lonely, recalled the Bach sarabande at times, as the frailty described by the words was described by a gradual softening of both voice and cello. The Tao single note returns in the concluding two songs, along with a chromatically inflected wandering line in the cello, almost like a passacaglia ostinato. Another charming Schubert song arrangement, the charming little Heidenröslein (op. 3/3), served as encore. Goethe, quite appropriately, had the last word, in this sunny little jewel of a song.

Wolfgang Holzmair will perform Schubert's song cycle Winterreise this Sunday (February 26, 5:30 pm), with pianist Russell Ryan, at Baltimore's Shriver Hall. Composer Lori Laitman will present a free concert of her music next month at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (March 14, 7:30 pm), including a section of her new opera based on The Scarlet Letter, with soprano Megan Monaghan, tenor Vale Rideout, and baritone Randall Scarlata.

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